China wants to bravely go where no robot has gone before on the Moon, by attempting a soft landing on its far side. As the first step in this mission, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) launched a Long March 4C rocket this morning carrying a communications satellite specifically to help with Moon exploration. The launch was not broadcast, but China National Space Administration (CNSA) said that it went according to plan.
The rocket's payload was a relay satellite named Queqiao (Magpie Bridge), reports Xinhua. The Magpie Bridge will set up a communication link between Earth and the robot on the dark side of the Moon, which cannot be seen from the Earth.
"The launch is a key step for China to realise its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the Moon," said Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project.
The Long March 4C separated from the satellite about 25 minutes after liftoff, notes the report. It has already entered Earth-Moon transfer orbit with perigee at 200 km and the apogee at about 400,000 km
About 25 minutes after liftoff, the satellite separated from the rocket and entered an Earth-Moon transfer orbit with the perigee (point in orbit nearest to Earth) at 200 km and the apogee (point in orbit farthest from Earth) at about 400,000 km. The report notes that the solar panels and the communication antennas have also been unfolded.
The Magpie has been made to orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the Earth-Moon system, about 455,000 km from Earth. Once in place, it will be the first communications satellite to operate from that halo orbit, says the report. This, however, is not easy because the satellite needs to overcome several challenges in getting there because several adjustments have to be made to its trajectory, it has to conduct braking operations near the Moon and make use of lunar gravity to get into orbit and make course corrections.
China is set to launch their robotic Moon lander later this year and this satellite will provide a key link in controlling the machine and collecting data from the dark side of the Moon.