Queqiao-2: China’s bridge for lunar exploration


  • The spacecraft will relay communications to Earth to support lunar far side and south pole missions
  • Queqiao-2 also carries three science payloads for studying near-Earth space and a VLBI experiment
  • The spacecraft could potentially support lunar missions by other countries

China has launched a new Moon relay satellite to enable its next set of ambitious lunar exploration missions.

Queqiao-2 (鹊桥二号 or “Magpie Bridge-2”) lifted off on a Long March 8 rocket from China’s Wenchang spaceport on March 20 (UTC). Its role will be to support new missions targeting the Moon’s far side and its south pole by acting as a communications relay.

Queqiao means "magpie bridge,” a name taken from Chinese mythology. It references the story of the cowherd and the weaver girl who are reunited once a year by a flock of magpies that create a bridge across the Milky Way. In a similar fashion, Queqiao-2 will act as a bridge to inaccessible areas on the Moon. 

Why do we need Queqiao-2?

Queqiao-2 will circumvent communications challenges that come with exploring the lunar far side and south pole. Queqiao-2 has a mass of 1,200 kilograms (2,645 pounds) and carries a large, 4.2-meter-diameter (13.8-foot) parabolic antenna that will be deployed once in space, and one of the largest sent beyond Earth orbit. Galileo's high-gain antenna was larger, at five meters, but failed to fully deploy. Designed to operate for at least eight years, it is intended to support a number of missions. 

Queqiao-2’s first task will be supporting the Chang’e-6 (嫦娥六号) lunar far side sample return mission. Chang’e-6 is planned to launch in May 2024 and will target Apollo crater within the intriguing South Pole-Aitken basin.

As the far side of the Moon never faces Earth due to tidal locking, communications between Earth and Chang’e-6 will need to be bounced off an intermediary spacecraft. The effort is worth it, as material from the lunar far side promises insights into why the near and far sides of the Moon differ, as well as the history of the Moon, Earth, and wider Solar System.

Earth and the Moon from Chang’e-5 T1 beyond the lunar farside
Earth and the Moon from Chang’e-5 T1 beyond the lunar farside The Chang'e 5 test vehicle captured this beautiful view of Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014.Image: CAST

How will Queqiao-2 operate?

To play its role, Queqiao-2 will be inserted into a specialized 24-hour-period elliptical "frozen orbit" that allows it to maintain a line of sight with both Earth ground stations and the Chang'e-6 mission in the Apollo crater for long periods of time.

This orbit is different from that of Queqiao-2’s predecessor, Queqiao, launched in 2018. That spacecraft facilitated the first-ever soft landing on the lunar far side from a halo orbit around Earth-Moon Lagrange point 2, around 65,000 kilometers or 40,000 miles beyond the Moon. This provided the support for the Chang’e-4 lander and rover mission, which are still active in Von Kármán crater to this day. The new, enhanced Queqiao-2 will also help support Chang’e-4 after assisting Chang’e-6, the surface operations of which will last only a few Earth days at most.

The high stability of Queqiao-2’s orbit demands minimal fuel for maintenance, meaning a longer lifetime, allowing it to support further missions: Chang’e-7 (2026) and Chang’e-8 (2028). These will attempt to land near the lunar south pole with objectives including seeking water and testing in-situ resource utilization techniques, such as making bricks from lunar regolith. Queqiao-2 will switch to a 12-hour period orbit to better support these later south polar missions.

Queqiao-2 will also carry three science payloads. These will play a part in the overall science goals of the multi-spacecraft Chang’e-7 mission. The Energetic Neutral Atom Imager for Earth’s magnetotail imaging (GENA) and the Extreme Ultraviolet Camera for Earth’s plasmasphere observation (EUC) will study Earth's magnetotail and plasmasphere, and how the solar wind interacts with the Earth's magnetosphere and the ionosphere.

A Moon-Earth very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI) measurement and observation experiment (LOVEX) is also included, designed to improve the accuracy of determining the orbits of spacecraft in deep space. It will create a 400,000-kilometer (250,000-mile) baseline between Queqiao-2 and radio telescopes on Earth. The experiment will also carry out radio astronomical observations and test capabilities for astrophysics and astrometry, making precise measurements of stars' locations in the sky.

The mission will also serve as a platform to test possible future lunar infrastructure. The launch will also send experimental CubeSats named Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2 to the Moon. The satellites were developed by China’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory and will test lunar communications and navigation payloads. The pair will fly in formation as pathfinders for a planned Queqiao lunar satellite constellation that will provide services for future robotic and crewed missions to the Moon, including the China-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

The 61-kilogram (134-pound) Tiandu-1 carries a laser retroreflector and a Ka dual-band integrated communication payload. The smaller, 15-kilogram (33-pound) Tiandu-2 carries a communications instrument. NASA and the European Space Agency are likewise looking to develop their own networks of communications and navigation satellites to support the Artemis program. China’s wider Queqiao concept could also be expanded to various Lagrange points, Venus, and Mars to facilitate deep space communication.

Queqiao-2 could also potentially support lunar far side or polar missions of other countries. Beijing is actively seeking partners for its ILRS initiative—a lunar program separate from NASA’s Artemis—and supporting infrastructure could add to the attraction. This means Queqiao-2 could play a diplomatic part in China’s space efforts, in addition to its role as a bridge for lunar science and exploration.