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China’s lunar Infrastructure is Progressing Significantly with the Launch of the Rocket

With the launch of a new data relay satellite on Monday, China’s Moon programme entered its next phase, connecting lunar landers and rovers on the Moon’s far side with ground controllers back on Earth.

With this launch, China’s Queqiao-2 relay spacecraft is headed for the Moon, where it will set up an elliptical orbit to await the arrival of Chang’e 6, the country’s next robotic lunar landing, later in the year.

A lift that is medium The Queqiao-2 spacecraft was launched by a Long March 8 rocket from the Wenchang launch facility, which is situated on Hainan Island in southern China. This was the third launch of the Chinese Long March 8, a new series of rockets meant to replace the earlier, toxic propellant-burning Long March launcher designs. It was powered by kerosene.

Less than half an hour after liftoff, at 8:31 pm EDT (00:31 UTC), the Queqiao-2 satellite was deployed by the Long March 8’s upper stage. It was anticipated that Queqiao-2 will unfold its solar panels and use its thrusters many times to manoeuvre into orbit around the Moon.

To minimise fuel consumption throughout the length of its mission, Queqiao-2 will manoeuvre into a stable “frozen” orbit near the Moon. Because of the way its orbit is oriented, Queqiao-2 will be able to spend hours hovering over the landing locations that Chinese officials have chosen for their upcoming robotic Moon missions.

The Long March 8 rocket also carried two smaller satellites to the Moon. These spaceships are roughly the size of a tiny suitcase for one, and an oven for the other. To verify orbit determination methods, the Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2 satellites will work together to perform intersatellite range tests. Similar to a lunar GPS, Chinese engineers are using the test results to guide the design of a constellation of navigation and data relay satellites that may be in operation within the next ten years.

Operations on the far side

Chang’e 6, the first lunar lander from China, is slated to launch in May on a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket, utilising the recently launched data relay satellite. Chang’e 6 aims to land on the Moon, gather samples, and bring them back to Earth—a feat China achieved in 2020 with the Chang’e 5 sample return mission.

On the other hand, Chang’e 5 touched down on the near side of the moon and was able to communicate directly with Earth via line of sight. China wants to collect the first rocks from the Moon’s far side and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis in labs for Chang’e 6. If Chang’e 6 is successful, it will be the first mission to return samples from the far side of the moon, bringing a new class of specimens to the collection of Moon rocks owned by humanity.

With the Chang’e 4 mission, which is a near-duplicate of Chang’e 3, which landed on the near side of the Moon in 2013, China successfully completed the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon in 2019. As a backup for Chang’e 5, China constructed the Chang’e 6 spacecraft.

China’s Chang’e 4 mission used the Queqiao-1 data relay satellite, which launched in May 2018, when it landed in 2019. When fully fueled for takeoff, Queqiao-2 weighs more than 2,600 pounds (1.2 metric tonnes), which is more than twice the mass of China’s first lunar communications relay station.

Queqiao alludes to Chinese mythology and means “magpie bridge.” With its launch on Monday, China’s lunar exploration programme has entered its fourth phase, according to Chinese officials. The leadership of China hopes to accomplish this goal by 2030, and the upcoming series of missions will serve as the direct forerunners to that historic first human landing on the Moon.

With a deployed diameter of about 14 feet (4.2 metres), Queqiao-2’s dish-shaped antenna will allow it to communicate with landers on the Moon from its orbit. For launch, this X-band antenna was folded up against the spacecraft’s main body so that it could fit inside the payload fairing of the Long March 8 rocket.

China’s lunar landers will have their scientific and engineering data repackaged for transmission back to Earth via Queqiao-2. Because Queqiao-2 is a two-way relay station, Chinese ground controllers can send commands to spacecraft on the Moon. Queqiao-2 is equipped with scientific instruments as well, including an instrument to enable radio astronomy investigations, an extreme ultraviolet camera, and a neutral atom imager.

Queqiao-2’s relay services will be used by at least two more Chinese lunar missions after Chang’e 6. Launched in 2026 and 2028, the robotic Chang’e 7 and Chang’e 8 missions will aim for landing sites in the Moon’s south pole area, where investigations from orbit reveal signs of water ice trapped inside the black polar crater floors.

Chang’e 7 was supposed to make a precise landing on the lighted rim of Shackleton Crater earlier this year. After that, it was supposed to drop a flying, or hopping, mini-probe to investigate deeper into the crater’s floor. Chang’e 7 has a rover and an orbiter in addition to a flying probe and a fixed landing platform.

Chang’e 8 will be the most intricate robotic mission to visit the Moon to date. It will also target an unidentified location close to the south pole. It will be composed of a lander, rover, and “operation robot” to conduct technology demonstration and scientific studies. According to a mission summary published by the China National Space Administration, these demonstrations will involve tests of a “mini-enclosed terrestrial ecosystem” on the Moon’s surface as well as studies on resource utilisation, most likely via harvesting soil or water.

Pioneer of lunar infrastructure

China has an advantage in developing its lunar infrastructure for the 2020s and 2030s even though Queqiao-2 is only the nation’s second lunar data relay satellite. In the US-led Artemis programme, NASA, however, seems to be further along than China in constructing rockets, spacecraft, and landers to send humans to the Moon’s south pole.

NASA’s official timeline places the first astronaut lunar landing, known as Artemis, in 2026, but that date may easily slide a few years.

No lunar data relay satellites are being developed by the US space agency on its own. Rather, NASA is depending on private enterprises to construct and activate relay stations for upcoming American and foreign (non-Chinese) landing teams travelling to the lunar far side. Among the companies creating a lunar data relay network is Intuitive Machines, which last month made the first soft landing on the Moon by a US spacecraft since 1972.

Using this relay network, Intuitive Machines may sell its services to other businesses and space agencies or enable communications for its own missions investigating the Moon’s far side. The data relay network of Intuitive Machines is expected to launch its first satellite by the end of this year.

Lunar Pathfinder, a data relay satellite for the Moon, is another project that the European Space Agency and the British company SSTL are working on together. Lunar Pathfinder will be launched by ESA and NASA aboard a US commercial rocket in 2026.

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