SpaceX is preparing to launch a new spacecraft after conducting the static ignition test of its thrusters on Friday. This time ignited the 33 engines of its Super Heavy fuel, Although two of them failed prematurely, the success of this previous technical maneuver on the ground is crucial for the American space company to decide to try again to put its super rocket into orbit. Elon Musk said on X (formerly Twitter): that this flight will be soon, although federal approvals for launch are still pending; And last week, new details emerged about the damage to the environment and wildlife caused by the previous attempt to launch Starship in the protected wilderness surrounding the SpaceX base.
Elon Musk’s company says it made the necessary changes around the platform to prevent its destruction and the tornado of debris that was shot down in the April 20 failed launch. When SpaceX is cleared to fly and the changes made to the platform and rocket are made, Starship will be by far the largest and most powerful rocket ever successfully launched. However, there is another record that he can no longer match.
One of the newest features of the Starship, Elon Musk’s super rocket that exploded on its first attempt at flight, is that its engines burn methane fuel (methane oxide is called Metalox in technical jargon because it’s a mixture of methane and liquid oxygen). ). Ditto for the Blue Origin orbital rocket being developed by its competitor Jeff Bezos. Some Chinese private companies have also decided to go this route.
Although the first four or five attempts were also unsuccessful, this summer a company called LandSpace, which almost nobody had heard of, announced that it had succeeded in launching a methane-powered rocket in all phases. On July 12, without prior notice, the space shuttle launched an inert charge into low-Earth orbit, a simple ballast to simulate the weight of a real satellite. Despite the English name, the company is Chinese and the test was conducted from the JiuQuan polygon in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
It’s the first time a pure methane rocket has made a successful orbital flight: China made history with the Zhuque-2, a medium-sized launch vehicle named after the vermilion bird, one of the four mythical creatures that appear in the constellations of the Chinese zodiac . Most remembered is the odyssey of the Starship, SpaceX’s super-heavy-lift space shuttle, which ended in April with the destruction of the vehicle and part of its launch pad. A Blue Origin motor exploded during static testing recently. Even the Chinese have had their problems: the first launch of the Zhuque-2 failed late last year because the second stage boosters couldn’t be started when it officially entered space.
As a fuel, methane has several advantages over the kerosene that most rockets burn, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Methane is slightly more efficient, although this advantage is increased by being injected under pressure into the combustion chamber, it is inexpensive to produce and easy to store in the rocket’s tanks. It must be kept at low temperatures, though not as cold as the liquid hydrogen used by high-power engines such as those used by NASA’s Artemis program’s SLS space shuttles to return to the moon. With these rockets, helium must also be injected into the tanks in order to transport the fuel in the direction of the bombs. Aside from the fact that helium is expensive, the auxiliary circuit for tanks and pipes adds an additional complication to the design of the vehicle. And all this affects the cost of each launch. In the case of methane rockets, on the other hand, the vaporization of this fuel already creates its own pressure system.
The benefits of methane
Burning methane produces less CO₂ and other pollutants than kerosene, a factor that must be considered when evaluating the environmental impact of any mission. The big advantage of using it on reusable rockets is that it hardly leaves any residue. You only have to imagine how the Falcon 9 lands, the lower fuselage of which is blackened already after a few minutes after switching on the brake engine, which burns kerosene.
When SpaceX chose methane, Elon Musk cited a reason that bordered on science fiction: Mars’ atmosphere, its eventual destination, is essentially CO₂. This will allow future expeditions to the Red Planet to synthesize the methane they need for the return trip right there. It’s a process that hasn’t been tested yet, but the Perseverance robot has conducted an experiment to extract oxygen from Martian air at a rate of six grams per hour. In a real mission, the engines need about seven tons of oxygen and about half methane to return to Earth.
From an operational perspective, the purity of the methane is critical. Musk’s plan to go to Mars involves first lunching a large number of his Starship super rockets, two a week (or maybe more) to carry the payload needed to successfully complete a Mars expedition into low Earth orbit is required.
In fact, the plan is for the Starship propellants on these round-trip flights to Earth orbit not to land on cement platforms (as is the case with the current SpaceX Falcon 9), but rather to land on the pedestal itself from which they launched. A pair of metal arms in the service tower must grab and rest the propeller at its base in the final seconds of its descent. There, without having to move them, they can clean their engines of the small residues of methane, check the remaining systems, adapt a ship to the fuel and have the super rocket ready for launch again in a matter of hours. At least that’s Elon Musk’s optimistic dream. So far, however, the only methane rocket that has flown successfully is a Chinese one.