China is on the verge of a space exploration breakthrough with the launch of the “Magpie Bridge” relay satellite for its Chang’e-4 lunar mission that will explore the dark side of the Moon, further establishing itself as a preeminent global space power.
China’s space agency has launched a relay satellite, part of a groundbreaking programme to explore the distant side of the Moon. The ‘Magpie’ satellite was launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in the southwestern province of Sichuan, and it was carried into orbit aboard a Long March-4C rocket.
This satellite will facilitate communication between controllers on Earth and the Chang’e 4 mission, the China National Space Administration said on its website. It is named Queqiao, or “Magpie Bridge,” after an ancient Chinese folk tale, the Space Administration said.
Without such a communications relay link, spacecraft on the far side would have to “send their signals through the moon’s rocky bulk,” according to space.com, as quoted in The Independent.
According to the administration and the website space.com, Queqiao should arrive at the Earth-moon Lagrange point 2, a gravitationally stable spot located 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) beyond the far side of the moon.
China hopes to become the first country to soft-land a probe on the moon’s far side, also known as the dark side because it faces away from Earth and is comparatively unknown and largely cut off from communications.
This launch is described as a “key step,” but the satellite’s mission must still overcome challenges including making multiple adjustments to its orbit, “braking” near the moon and using lunar gravity to its advantage, project manager Zhang Lihua was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency and quoted in The Independent.
Landing on the Moon is not new for China: its Jade Rabbit rover landed on the moon in 2013, and it has plans to land its Chang’e 5 probe there next year, and then have it return to Earth with samples. This would be the first time that has been done since 1976.
China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, making it only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to do so. It has also put a pair of space stations into orbit.
Upcoming missions include the launch of the core module for the orbiting Tiangong-2 space station, along with specialized components for a 60-ton space station expected to come online in 2022 , as well as and a Mars rover mission planned for the next decade.
The failure of China’s Long March 5 rocket last year was a rare but serious setback to its highly successful space program; it delayed several planned missions, offering India a chance to move ahead in the space race.