China really, really, really wants to explore the Moon — more specifically, the dark side of the Moon. The country has been steadily moving towards its ultimate goal of Moon exploration for a long while now, and it just launched a shiny new satellite that lays at least part of the foundation to achieve it.
The new satellite, called Queqiao (that means “Magpie Bridge,” according to Chinese news agency Xinhua), will act as a relay to link communications between the country’s science team on Earth and its planned Chang’e 4 lunar probe which is planned for the not-so-distant future.
The early-morning launch of the satellite was facilitated by a Long March-4C rocket which departed from the country’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The satellite successfully entered a transfer orbit to bring it to the Moon and according to China’s National Space Administration, the spacecraft unfolded its solar panels and communications antennas without issue.
“The launch is a key step for China to realize its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the Moon,” Zhang Lihua, manager of the satellite mission said, according to Xinhua. China’s Moon exploration ambitions have been building rapidly in recent years, and as companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin begin to commercialize spaceflight, the country’s aim to leave its mark on the Moon seems to be designed to bring its space science programs into the international spotlight.
The current timeline of the Chang’e 4 mission pins the launch of the lander and a robotic rover for later this year, with the eventual Moon landing happening nearer to the end of 2018. The country obviously has a bit of work to do before it can move forward, however, and its next order of business will be ensuring that the newly-launched relay satellite is correctly positioned and oriented to perform its communications-ferrying duties.
Once it arrives on the Moon, the Chang’e 4 hardware will study the chemical makeup of the material on the lunar surface as well as taking measurements of temperature and observing solar radiation and cosmic rays. The mission is currently planned to last roughly one full year, though if the hardware remains in working order it’s certainly possible that it will continue to be used past its planned mission end date.