China will start building relay satellites that by 2030 will act as a communication bridge between missions to the moon and beyond, and ground operations on Earth, Chinese state media reported on Wednesday.
A pilot of the satellite constellation will support China's ongoing lunar exploration programme and the building of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing Wu Yanhua, chief designer of China's deep space exploration project.
To kick off the building of the constellation - called Queqiao-2, or Magpie Bridge-2, named after a bridge made up of magpies in a Chinese myth - a communications relay satellite between the far side of the moon and Earth will be launched in 2024 to support uncrewed lunar missions this decade.
That year, China plans to launch the Chang'e-6 mission to retrieve lunar samples from an ancient basin in the far side of the moon.
The Chang'e-7 mission will be launched around 2026 to explore lunar resources on the moon's south pole, with the aim of sustaining long-term human habitation.
That will be followed by the Chang'e-8 mission around 2028, when a basic model of the ILRS will be constructed. So far, China has secured participation from Russia and Venezuela.
China aims to land astronauts on the moon by 2030.
In the next phase, a basic constellation will be constructed around 2040 to support communications, navigation and remote-sensing services for manned lunar and deep space exploration missions to planets such as Mars and Venus, Wu said.
In 2020, the uncrewed Chang'e-5 probe, named after the mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, took back to Earth China's first lunar soil samples.
China made its first lunar landing in 2013, and aims to be a major space power by 2030.