China is getting ready to achieve something no other nation has done before: sending a lander to the far side of the moon. Known as the Chang’e 4 mission, this historic endeavor is a two-part enterprise that debuts today, with the launch of the Queqiao relay satellite, Space.com reports.
Named after a Chinese folktale evocative of bridging vast distances through the cosmos, the Queqiao satellite will take off at about 5 p.m. EDT (21:00 GMT, 5 a.m. on May 21 local Xichang time). The satellite will be carried into space by a Long March 4C rocket, taking off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the Sichuan Province.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the satellite launch taking place on May 20 represents only the first part of the Chang’e 4 mission, which also aims to send a rover and a lander to the far side of the moon.
The rover-lander pair is due to launch later this year and, if everything goes as planned, will become humanity’s first spacecraft to ever land on the side of the moon that never faces the Earth.
Shortly after today’s launch, the Queqiao satellite will settle into a halo orbit at about 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond the lunar far side, at the gravitationally stable location marked by the Earth-moon Lagrange Point L2.
Meanwhile, the pioneering lander and rover will be making the trip to the moon about six months from now, eventually being deployed at the Aitken Basin near the moon’s south pole.
The satellite’s purpose is to relay signals and data, bridging the communication between Earth and the rover-lander duo. The satellite’s name, which translates as “bridge of magpies,” was specifically chosen to mirror this highly important task.
“In a Chinese folktale, magpies form a bridge with their wings on the seventh night of the seventh month of the lunar calendar to enable Zhi Nu, the seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, to cross and meet her beloved husband, separated from her by the Milky Way,” explained the Chinese Xinhua news service.
According to Gizmodo, the analogy fits perfectly with the job of the satellite, without which Earth can’t communicate with any potential spacecraft on the far lunar side because the moon is tidally locked to our planet.
This means that only one side of the moon, the near side, ever faces the Earth and that any signals from the far side would have to travel through the moon’s rocky body to reach us.
Aside from providing a relay link, the Queqiao satellite will also carry out an astronomy experiment designed to look for radio signals from the early days of the universe. Dubbed the Netherlands-China Low-Frequency Explorer, the experiment will travel on board the satellite and analyze the solar wind near the moon.
Today’s event is actually a three-satellite launch, as Long March 4C rocket will fare into space two other mini-satellites as well. The twin small probes, called Longjiang-1 and Longjiang-2, are tasked with conducting radio-astronomy research.
This latest Chang’e mission comes after a series of successful Chinese lunar expeditions that have already put a lander and a rover on the near side of the moon in 2013 during the previous Chang’e 3 mission. The Chang’e program, named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, will follow up with Chang’e 5 in 2019 when China plans to bring a lunar sample back to Earth. The nation’s end goal is to send astronauts to the moon by the end of the 2030s.