China’s Lunar Exploration Programme

China’s lunar exploration programme is a series of ongoing robotic Moon missions by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The programme incorporates lunar orbiters, landers, rovers and sample return spacecraft, launched using Long March rockets. It aims to study the Moon’s surface, geology, and environment, as well as to demonstrate and develop new technologies for space exploration.

Queqiao-2 Satellite

On March 21, 2024, China launched the Queqiao-2 satellite, named after a mythological bridge made of magpies, as part of its lunar exploration programme. The satellite, weighing 1.2 metric tons, was carried by a Long March 8 rocket from the southern island province of Hainan. Queqiao-2 will act as a communications bridge between ground operations on Earth and upcoming missions on the far side of the moon.

Relay Function

Due to the Moon’s rotation, its far side always faces away from Earth, making direct communication impossible. Queqiao-2 will orbit the Moon and relay signals to and from the Chang’e-6 mission, expected to launch in May. The satellite will also support the Chang’e-7 lunar mission in 2026 and the Chang’e-8 mission in 2028.

Future Constellation

By 2040, Queqiao-2 will be part of a constellation of relay satellites serving as a communications bridge for crewed lunar missions and exploration on other planets like Mars and Venus. The constellation will also provide communications, navigation, and remote sensing support for China’s planned research station at the Moon’s south pole.

Orbit

Queqiao-2 is expected to enter a highly elliptical orbit that passes close to the Moon’s south pole, reaching as high as 8,600 km above its surface and enabling a communication link between Earth and the Moon for more than eight hours. For the remainder of its roughly 12-hour orbit, Queqiao-2 will be as low as 300 km above the lunar surface.

Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2 Miniature Satellites

Alongside Queqiao-2, China launched two miniature satellites, Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2. These satellites will conduct tests for the construction of the planned constellation.

Chang’e-6 Mission

The robotic Chang’e-6 mission, scheduled for launch in May, will seek to retrieve samples from an ancient basin on the far side of the Moon. This will be the first time lunar material has been acquired from the Moon’s hidden side.

Queqiao-1 Satellite

Queqiao-2 will take over from the ageing Queqiao-1 satellite, launched in 2018. Queqiao-1, a third as massive as Queqiao-2, was the first relay satellite deployed to the far side of the moon, supporting the Chang’e-4 mission. Despite a designed lifespan of five years, Queqiao-1 is still operating and orbits a point in space about 70,000 km beyond the moon.

Chang’e-4 Mission and Yutu-2 Rover

In 2019, the Chang’e-4 mission made history by becoming the first spacecraft to perform a soft landing on the far side of the moon. It successfully delivered the robotic rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit in Chinese, to the surface. Yutu-2 is still in operation, exploring the lunar landscape.

Future Plans

China’s lunar exploration programme is expected to continue with crewed missions to the Moon’s surface by 2030. The planned research outpost at the Moon’s south pole will further advance scientific understanding and technological capabilities related to lunar exploration.


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