China is aiming to send the world’s first methane-fuelled rocket into space , with a launch planned in the next two weeks, according to a source with knowledge of the matter. The rocket – known as the Zhuque-2 and developed by Beijing-based start-up Landspace – is expected to be launched between December 4 and 15 from the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, the source told the South China Morning Post. If successful it will be the first methane-burning rocket sent into orbit. Landspace is in a race with US rivals SpaceX and Relativity Space, which are also hoping to launch methane rockets soon. Methane is the primary component of natural gas. As a rocket fuel, it is more efficient, easier to produce and more environmentally friendly than traditional fuels such as refined kerosene. Seen by many as the go-to fuel for next-generation rockets, methane has a higher “specific impulse” than kerosene – meaning how efficiently the engine can turn the propellant into thrust, similar to miles per gallon for a car. A higher specific impulse means less propellant is needed, so it is cheaper to launch. Methane also has the advantage of being technically easier to produce than it is to refine kerosene. It could also be extracted and made on the moon, Mars and many other places in the solar system. Some scientists have, for instance, proposed that the regolith – rocks and dust on the moon’s surface that contain traces of carbon and hydrogen – be heated to produce methane. But there are many challenges to building a methane engine, such as the difficulty involved in igniting the fuel – especially in a low-temperature environment such as on a space mission. Starlink breaks space traffic safety rules and China may follow: study The Zhuque-2 – a two-stage rocket standing nearly 50 metres (164 feet) tall and more than 3 metres wide – burns a mix of liquid methane and liquid oxygen. With a mass of 219 tonnes and thrust of 268 tonnes at lift-off, it will be able to send 6 tonnes of cargo into low-Earth orbit, according to Landspace. It will use four 80-tonne-thrust engines – known as Tianque-12 – in the first stage, and one more as the main engine in the second stage, along with four 10-tonne-thrust vernier engines. In terms of scale, the Chinese rocket sits between SpaceX’s huge Starship and the smaller Terran 1 developed by Relativity Space. The 120-metre-tall Starship will have capacity to deliver 100 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, while the 35-metre Terran 1 will be able to deliver 1.5 tonnes. A key difference between the Zhuque-2 and its US counterparts is that the Chinese rocket is not reusable at the moment. Landspace said it was developing new, reusable models of the Tianque-12 engines for future use. While the Zhuque-2 has yet to be launched, its developer is building rockets for planned second and third flights at its manufacturing base in Jiaxing, in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Those rockets could be ready for launch within six months. China’s rocket break-up sends space junk flying near Starlink orbit Landspace was founded in 2015 by Tsinghua University alumnus Zhang Changwu and is one of the best funded space companies in China. The company has said it secured 1.2 billion yuan (US$170 million) in investment in September 2020 to develop the Zhuque-2 rockets. It has only attempted one previous launch, in 2018, when its small, solid-fuelled Zhuque-1 rocket failed to reach orbit due to an altitude control problem in the third stage. The Zhuque-2 was originally expected to be launched in 2020, but the plan was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The coming launch will be the first attempt by a Chinese company to send a liquid-fuelled rocket into space.