China has launched the Queqiao relay satellite that is aimed at supporting the first-ever planned mission to the far side of the moon.
According to the China National Space Administration, the Queqiao relay satellite was launched onboard Long March 4C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China at 5:28 a.m. (2128 GMT Sunday). The relay satellite will play a major role in China’s Chang’e-4 lunar exploration project by establishing a communication link between Earth and the Chinese lunar exploration rover on the far side of the moon.
The far side is that side of the moon that never faces the Earth and is comparatively unknown. Notably, no country has ever been able to send their missions to the dark part of the lunar surface because of communications difficulties.
The 400-kg satellite, named Queqiao, is expected to enter a halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the Earth-Moon system, about 455,000 km from the Earth, in about eight days. It will be the first communication satellite in the world to operate in that orbit. It has been designed to serve a lifetime of five years.
The spacecraft will undergo a couple of tests over the next few months to ensure that it functions properly as a communications relay for China Chang’e 4 spacecraft which is scheduled to launch sometime later this year. The Queqiao spacecraft will use S-band and X-band frequencies to communicate.
The spacecraft carries a Dutch radio antenna which will be switched on in 2019 to search for long-wavelength signals as well as a large-aperture laser angle reflector for ranging measurements between Earth and the spacecraft.
Commenting on the satellite’s launch, Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project, said that Queqiao’s launch is a key step for China to realize its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land and probe the far side of the moon.