China Launches Second Lunar Communications Relay Satellite

China Launches Second Lunar Communications Relay Satellite

China launched a second satellite today that will orbit the Moon to enable communications with lunar landers on the farside, which always points away from Earth. Queqiao-2, or Magpie Bridge-2, will replace the existing Queqiao-1 and serve as a relay for China’s current farside lander, Chang’e-4, and at least three more planned over the next five years.

China is the only country to have landed on the farside. The Moon is tidally locked with Earth so that one side always faces towards Earth and the other perpetually faces away. A spacecraft on the farside can only communicate with Earth if there is a satellite within view to relay the signals.

Chang’e-4, with its Yutu-2 rover, landed on the farside in January 2019 and has been sending back images and data via Queqiao-1, which was launched in 2018. Its lifetime is coming to an end.

Queqiao-2 will replace it and support Chang’e-4 as well as future lunar landers like Chang’e-6, which is scheduled for launch in May. Chang’e-6 will not only land on the farside, but return samples to Earth. China already returned lunar samples from the nearside with Chang’e-5 in 2020.

Chang’e is China’s mythological goddess of the Moon. Yutu is her pet rabbit.

Queqiao-2 lifted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on a Long March-8 rocket at 8:31 pm EDT this evening (8:31 am March 20 local time at the launch site) with two smaller satellites, Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2.

Launch of China’s Queqiao-2 lunar communications relay satellite on a Long March 8 from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, March 19, 2024 EDT. Credit: CGTN

Queqiao-2 weighs almost four times more than Queqiao-1, 1,200 kilograms versus 325 kg, according to the South China Morning Post and will orbit the moon in a highly elliptical 300 x 8,600 kilometer orbit. Tiandu-1 is 61 kg “with a Ka dual-band communications payload, a laser retroreflector and a space router among other devices” while Tiandu-2 is 15 kg with “a communication payload and navigation devices.” They are precursors to a constellation of lunar communications, navigation and remote sensing satellites.

China has been launching spacecraft to the Moon since 2007 and has extensive plans for the future. Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 were lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010 respectively. Chang’e-3 with its Yutu rover was China’s first lunar lander in 2013. Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 followed in 2019, then Chang’e-5 brought back samples from the nearside in 2020. After Chang’e-6 this year,  Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 are planned for launch in 2026 and 2028. China says it will land taikonauts there by 2030 and is working with Russia and other countries on an International Lunar Research Station for the 2030s and beyond.

The Soviet Union, United States, India, and Japan have successfully landed on the Moon, but all of those have been on the nearside. The U.S. Odysseus commercial lander is the most recent.

The Soviet, Chinese, Indian and Japanese landers and rovers have all been robotic.Only the United States has landed people on the Moon — six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. The United States plans to send a crew of four (three Americans and one Canadian) around the Moon on the Artemis II test flight in 2025 and put two astronauts on the surface in 2026 on Artemis III.

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