China launched a relay satellite to set up a communication link between Earth and the planned Chang’e-4 lunar probe that will explore the Moon’s mysterious far side. The satellite was carried by a Long March-4C rocket that blasted off at 5:28 am (2128 GMT) from southwest China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The satellite, named Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, was developed by China Spacesat Co., Ltd. under the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). “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,” said Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project.
About 25 minutes after lift-off, the satellite separated from the rocket and entered an Earth-Moon transfer orbit with the perigee at 200 km and the apogee at about 400,000 km. Meanwhile, the solar panels and the communication antennas were unfolded. China has outlined an ambitious blueprint for deep space exploration, including the Chang’e-5 lunar probe in 2019. After fulfilling the three steps of its lunar probe program — orbiting, landing and returning — China will further explore the Moon, including landing and probing the polar regions, said Tian Yulong, CNSA secretary general. China will launch its first Mars probe in 2020, and it is expected to orbit, land and put a rover on the Red Planet.