China's Chang'e 4 Moon-Relay Satellite Gets a Name from Folklore
An artist's illustration of a planned communications spacecraft that will relay data between controllers on Earth and China's Chang'e 4 lander and rover on the moon's far side.
Credit: CNSA

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has announced the name of the relay satellite to be used in the country's Chang'e 4 mission to the moon's far side.

Drumroll, please: It's "Queqiao," which means "bridge of magpies."

The name comes from a Chinese folktale. In the story, China's state-run Xinhua news agency explained, "magpies form a bridge with their wings on the seventh night of the seventh month of the lunar calendar to enable Zhi Nu, the seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, to cross and meet her beloved husband, separated from her by the Milky Way." [China's Moon Missions Explained (Infographic)

Two microsatellites will be launched along with Queqiao, to conduct scientific research. The names of those two satellites were also announced Tuesday (April 24): "Longjiang-1" and "Longjiang-2."

The timing of these announcements was no accident. April 24 marks the day China's first satellite was sent into space in 1970, and has been celebrated as the country's "Space Day" since 2016.

Queqiao and its Long March 4 rocket are both currently at their launch site in Xichang, in southwest China's Sichuan Province.

The relay satellite is scheduled to launch in late May. It will be placed into a halo orbit of the Earth-moon Lagrange point L2, a gravitationally stable spot about 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) above the lunar far side.

"We designed an orbit at the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point L2 about 450,000 kilometers from the Earth, where a gravitational equilibrium can be maintained, and the relay satellite will be able to 'see' both the Earth and the far side of the moon," said Bao Weimin, director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., according to Xinhua.

In November, China plans to launch the Chang'e 4 far-side lander and rover. Chang'e 4 also will tote payloads for Germany, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Sweden.

The whole mission "is very complex and challenging," Bao added. "We feel great pressure, but we are confident."

In a related Xinhua story, CNSA's Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, said the launch of the Chang'e 5 lunar probe is planned for next year.

That mission is designed to bring lunar samples back to Earth. Chang'e 5 was delayed from last year due to a Long March 5 booster failure and subsequent investigation of the mishap. That heavy-lift rocket is needed to hurl the return sample craft moonward.

Pei said that the Chang'e 5 mission will be very complex, containing four parts: an orbiter, a returner, an ascender and a lander.

The moon lander will grab and stash lunar samples in the ascender. Rocketing off the lunar surface, the ascender is to rendezvous and dock with the orbiter, then transfer the collected moon material into the returner, Pei said.

The orbiter and returner will then head back toward Earth, Pei said, separating from each other when they are several thousand kilometers from Earth. Finally, the returner will make its way down to our planet's surface.

According to Xinhua, CNSA Secretary General Tian Yulong said that, after fulfilling the three steps of China's lunar probe program — orbiting, landing and returning — the country will conduct further lunar exploration, including landing and probing the polar regions of the moon.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for China's Chang'e 5 mission, go to this CCTV-Plus video.

Leonard David is author of "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," published by National Geographic. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel series "Mars." A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. This version of the story published on Space.com.