China’s Next Lunar Relay Satellite Blasts Off

Communication between spacecraft relies upon line of site technology, if anything is in the way, communication isn’t possible. Exploration of the far side of the Moon is a great example where future explorers would be unable to communicate directly with Earth.  The only way around this is to use relay satellites and the Chinese Space Agency is on the case. The first Queqiao-1 was able to co-ordinate communications with Chang’e-4 landers and now they are sending Queqiao-2 to support the Change’e-6 mission. 

If you have ever gazed upon the Moon you might have noticed that it always has the same hemisphere facing the Earth. This phenomenon is known as captured or synchronous rotation. It may look like the Moon isn’t rotating but in reality the time it takes to spin once on its axis is the same as the time it takes to complete one orbit around the Earth, keeping one hemisphere constantly facing us. Explorers on the near side of the Moon have no trouble communicating with transmissions taking just over one second to reach home. Explore the far side of the Moon and you have a problem. 

The Chang’e 5 test vehicle captured this beautiful view of Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014. Credit: Chinese national space agency (CNSA) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

To overcome the problem China have launched a 1.2 ton communication satellite known as Queqiao-2. It’s name originates from the mythological bridge made from magpies. In the Chinese tale, the magpies formed a bridge across the Milky Way to allow the lovers Vega and Altair to be together for one night once a year. Two miniature satellites were also launched Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2 from the island of Hainan.

On arrival it will orbit the Moon and provide a relay for the Chang’e-6 lander which is slated to launch in May.  It will join satellites from United States, India and Japan to support the exploration of the far side of the Moon. Chang’e-6 will collected samples from an ancient basin. Not only will it serve the communications for Change-6, it will transfer communications for Chang’e-7 and ‘8. Both craft are to be launched in the years ahead 2026 and 2028 respectively. 

The orbit of Queqiao-2 will take it almost over the south pole in an elliptical orbit. It will reach an altitude of 8,600 km so that communication can be achieved for a little over eight hours. At its closest, it will sweep over the lunar surface at an altitude of 300 km.

The ultimate goal of the Chinese Space Agency is to create a network of satellites, not too dissimilar (but not quite on the same scale) to the growing Space X constellation which is building a global internet presence. The purpose of Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2 is to test the concept of such a constellation. 

China’s longer term aspirations include a research station at the lunar south pole and for this to be viable, communication relays are essential to establish communication, navigation and remote sensing. 

Source : China launches signal relay satellite for mission to moon’s hidden side

Mark Thompson

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