China has embarked on a pioneering endeavour in lunar exploration with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite, marking a significant milestone in the nation’s space programme. The satellite, named after a mythical bridge made of magpies, aims to establish a crucial communications link between Earth and an upcoming mission on the far side of the moon.

Carried by a Long March-8 rocket, the 1.2-metric ton Queqiao-2, along with two miniature satellites named Tiandu-1 and -2, lifted off from Hainan, a southern island province. This launch signifies a new chapter in China’s lunar exploration as Queqiao-2 is poised to play a pivotal role in relaying signals to and from the Chang’e-6 mission, slated for May. Chang’e-6 will be tasked with collecting samples from an ancient lunar basin, marking the first attempt to acquire material from the moon’s hidden side.

Queqiao-2’s significance extends beyond the Chang’e-6 mission. It is set to serve as a vital relay platform for subsequent lunar missions, including Chang’e-7 in 2026 and Chang’e-8 in 2028. As part of a long-term vision, by 2040, Queqiao-2 is anticipated to be integrated into a constellation of relay satellites, facilitating communication for crewed lunar missions and expeditions to other celestial bodies like Mars and Venus.

In parallel, the Tiandu-1 and -2 miniature satellites will embark on tests for constructing a constellation that will provide essential support, including communication, navigation, and remote sensing, for China’s planned research station at the moon’s south pole.

Queqiao-2’s orbit design is crucial for its operational efficiency. With a highly elliptical orbit reaching heights of up to 8,600 km above the lunar surface, it ensures an extended communication window between Earth and the moon for over eight hours. Additionally, its orbit will take it as close as 300 km to the lunar surface, optimising its performance.

The launch of Queqiao-2 marks a transition from its predecessor, Queqiao-1, launched in 2018. Despite being a third of its mass, Queqiao-1 successfully served as the first relay satellite for the far side of the moon, supporting the Chang’e-4 mission. Chang’e-4, executed in 2019, achieved the historic feat of performing a soft landing on the far side of the moon, deploying the robotic rover Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit), which continues its operations to this day.

With Queqiao-2’s anticipated lifespan of at least eight years, extending support beyond 2030, China is poised to further advance its lunar exploration ambitions, including the prospect of landing its first astronauts on the moon. As China continues its journey into space exploration, the launch of Queqiao-2 heralds a new era of scientific discovery and technological advancement in lunar exploration.