China’s LandSpace tests prototype of Zhuque-3 reusable stainless steel rocket

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By Blegug Nan

“The rocket landed smoothly and accurately, and remained in good condition. The flight was a complete success,” the company announced.

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The test rocket is a prototype that incorporates the latest technology in landing gear, ground control systems and precision guidance for vertical recovery – all of which are crucial to the success of Zhuque-3’s maiden flight targeted to take place in 2025.

“It helped us obtain core flight data on key technologies involved in the development of the Zhuque-3 reusable methane-liquid oxygen rocket,” the company said.

The 18.3 metre-long, 3.4 metre-wide test rocket was not only the largest of its kind in China, but also the world’s first stainless steel VTVL rocket.

It was powered by a Tianque-12B engine, which will be used on the two-stage, medium-lift Zhuque-3.

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LandSpace and US rivals SpaceX and Relativity Space have all been racing to develop methane-powered rocket technology. As a rocket fuel, methane is more efficient, easier to produce and more environmentally friendly than traditional fuels such as refined kerosene.

Zhuque-3 will be 76.6 metres long and 4.5 metres wide and will combine features of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Starship rockets. Powered by nine Tianque-12B engines, it is expected to be able to carry up to 18.3 tonnes (15 tons) of payload into low Earth orbit if its first stage is recovered down range.

The company said Zhuque-3’s first stage was designed to be reused at least 20 times, which could support China’s demand for frequent launches to assemble satellite-based internet constellations and for the commercial launch of large communications satellites and other spacecraft.

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Before LandSpace’s VTVL test on Friday, at least four other companies in China had conducted hop tests for reusable rockets. They include the Beijing-based iSpace and Galactic Energy, the Nantong-based Deep Blue Aerospace, and CAS Space headquartered in Guangzhou.

In November and December, iSpace conducted two hop tests as part of the development of its reusable Hyperbola-3 rocket. iSpace is eyeing a first flight of its Hyperbola-3 next year. The rocket is expected to be able to deliver 8.5 tonnes of payload to low Earth orbit in reusable mode.

In 2022, Deep Blue Aerospace carried out a 1km (0.6 miles) VTVL test for the development of its Nebula-1 reusable launcher.

LandSpace said its next goal was to conduct a 10km flight test with the VTVL rocket, but did not give a time frame.

The most famous hop tests in private space flight include SpaceX’s Grasshopper tests, carried out about a decade ago to aid the development of the Falcon 9 rocket.

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