Queqiao: China to Launch Lunar Communication Station

On Sunday, China hopes to start the next stage of its ambitious lunar exploration agenda with the launch of a communications satellite. That instrument is designed to smooth the way to the far side of the moon, where no mission has ever gone before.

The satellite, called Queqiao, is essentially infrastructure for China's lunar plans. After the satellite launches, it will make its way to hover over the far side of the moon, to perch at what astronomers call the Lagrange L2 point, some 40,000 miles above the surface.

That's one of a handful of parking spots where satellites can easily hold their position. From there, Queqiao will be well poised to bounce signals between Earth and the far side of the moon.

The location has a second perk as well, and one that the Netherlands will be taking advantage of. The rocket launching Sunday will also carry a Dutch radio antenna designed to catch faint celestial signals from the early days of the universe.

Radio astronomy can be tricky on Earth because it gathers the same type of light waves that we use in communications and navigation technology. This means that even on the parts of the Earth where human influence is weakest, it can be difficult to separate astronomical signals from artificial chatter.

From the Lagrange L2 point, the moon's bulk will block all those signals bouncing around Earth, leaving the antenna with a crystal-clear view of the universe.

China launched its previous moon mission, Chang'e 3, in 2013. STR/AFP/Getty Images

After Queqiao, China's next step is the Chang'e 4 mission, slated to launch in November of this year. That mission is to include a lander, which the country hopes will be the first to explore the far side of the moon.

Both of this year's launches are preludes to the Chang'e 5 mission, the culmination of China's lunar dreams. That mission is due to launch next year and, if successful, will mark the first retrieval of a sample of moon rock since 1976.