China is one step closer to landing on the dark side of the moon.
The ambitious and fast-growing space power launched a relay satellite early Monday to set up a communication link between the Earth and the country’s planned lunar probe, China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced in a statement.
“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 relay satellite project, was quoted as saying by state-run Xinhua news agency.
China first announced in 2015 its intention to have the Chang’e-4 lunar probe touch down on the far side of the moon. The launch is expected to take place later this year.
Carrying the satellite, named Queqiao, a Chinese-built Long March-4C rocket blasted off shortly before 5:30 a.m. Monday (5:30 p.m. ET Sunday) from the Xichang space launch center in southwestern China.
The CNSA said Queqiao, which means “magpie bridge” in Chinese, separated from the rocket about 25 minutes after liftoff – and entered a transfer orbit between the Earth and the moon with its solar panels and communication antennas successfully unfolded.
But the mission still faces numerous challenges ahead, according to project manager Zhang, including multiple adjustments to its final orbit, braking near the moon and taking advantage of the lunar gravity.
China’s first lunar rover, known as jade rabbit, finished operating in 2016.
Owning the space race
While the US space agency NASA continues to face budgetary constraints, China is increasingly aiming to own the space race in the coming decade.
Beijing plans to launch its first Mars probe around 2020 to carry out orbiting and roving exploration, followed by a second mission that would include collection of surface samples from the red planet.
In addition to the Chang’e-4 robotic lunar mission, Wu Yanhua, CNSA’s deputy chief, has said that China was studying the possibility of sending a man to the moon, as well as plans to send probes to Jupiter and its moons.
“Our overall goal is that, by around 2030, China will be among the major space powers of the world,” he said.
It’s also planning to have a fully operational permanent space station by 2022 – around the same time funding for the International Space Station is expected to end.
There have been setbacks along the way, though, highlighted by the failed second launch of China’s new-generation Long March-5 carrier rocket last July.
The huge rocket – 5 meters in diameter and 57 meters tall – was designed to carry up to 25 tons of payload into low orbit, more than doubling the country’s previous lift capability.
China was late to the space race – it didn’t send its first satellite into space until 1970, just after the United States put the first man on the moon.
But in the decades since, China has pumped billions of dollars and other resources into research and training.
Since 2003, China has staged a spacewalk, landed a rover on the moon and launched two space labs. It has also sent six crews into space since 2003, making it only the third country in the world – after Russia and the United States – with such success.
Since 2011, the US Congress has prohibited NASA from working with China because of national security concerns.
Chinese officials have always stressed the country’s “peaceful motives” behind its space exploration and utilization, but analysts agree that US-China collaboration in space would be unlikely anytime soon – especially given the Trump administration’s hardened stance toward Beijing on strategic issues ranging from Taiwan to the South China Sea.