China launched a relay satellite early on Monday designed to establish a communication link between earth and a planned lunar probe that will explore the dark side of the moon, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Citing the China National Space Administration, Xinhua said the satellite was launched at 5:28 a.m. (2128 GMT Sunday) on a Long March-4C rocket from the Xichang launch center in the southwest of the country.
“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,” Xinhua quoted Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project, as saying.
It said the satellite, known as Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, will settle in an orbit about 455,000 km (282,555 miles) from earth and will be the world’s first communication satellite operating there.
China plans to send the Chang’e-4 lunar rover, named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology, on a probe mission to the dark side of the moon later this year.
Also known as the dark side of the Moon, the far hemisphere is never directly visible from Earth and while it has been photographed, with the first images appearing in 1959, it has never been explored.
The Chang’e-4 rover will be sent to the Aitken Basin in the lunar south pole region, according to Xinhua.
It will be the second Chinese probe to land on the Moon, following the Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover mission in 2013.
At first, the Yutu looked destined to fail when the rover stopped sending signals back to Earth.
But then it made a dramatic recovery, ultimately surveying the Moon’s surface for 31 months, well beyond its expected lifespan.
The CNSA is planning to send another lunar rover, Chang’e-5, next year to collect samples and bring them back to Earth.
China aims to catch up with Russia and the United States to become a major space power by 2030. It is planning to launch construction of its own manned space station next year.
However, while China has insisted its ambitions are purely peaceful, the U.S. Defense Department has accused it of pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations from using space-based assets during a crisis.