Photo taken by the rover Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit-2) on Jan 11, 2019 shows the lander of the Chang'e 4 probe. (Photo: China National Space Administration)
A United Kingdom company plans to build a spacecraft that could play an important role in future missions to the moon.
The company, SSTL from Guildford in England, says it will have the vehicle, which will be called Lunar Pathfinder, ready for use by the end of 2022. It will take telecommunications equipment into an orbit around the moon, and future missions to the moon will use it to relay messages back to Earth.
The BBC reports that communications spacecraft already perform a similar function for Mars, where they orbit the planet and relay telemetry back to the Earth from surface rovers, but there is no such service for the moon.
SSTL will finance the construction of the satellite and sell capacity to the European Space Agency, which is also known as the ESA. Other space agencies will also be able to buy capacity, as will private companies.
The UK satellite will be put into a highly elliptical orbit, ensuring it will pass over the lunar south pole; the destination of a manned NASA mission in 2024 called Project Artemis.
Lunar Pathfinder will also be able to relay messages back from the far side of the moon, from where direct radio signals cannot reach Earth.
China's lunar rover Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2) completed its mission to the far side of the moon last month, where it conducted scientific exploration and drove almost 370 meters across the surface. China plans to launch the Chang'e-5 probe later this year to bring lunar samples back to Earth.
It is thought Lunar Pathfinder would be able to support such missions.
The UK has been increasing its interest in space missions recently. On Sunday, an unmanned ESA mission to the sun will launch, thanks to extensive British contributions. And the UK Space Agency, known as UKSA, committed 12 million pounds ($15.7 million) to Europe's lunar exploration budget earlier this year, as well as an additional 15 million pounds toward an international space station proposed for the moon that will be called Gateway.
That project too could make use of the Lunar Pathfinder.
"This would be to talk from Gateway to surface missions," Sue Horne, head of space exploration at UKSA, told the BBC. "This should be compatible with Lunar Pathfinder. So, you can see our strategy: We'd like to take a lead in deep space communications with Goonhilly (the UK's main satellite signal receiving dish),Lunar Pathfinder, and Gateway. We're carving out an area for the UK."
And Europe is also keen to send humans to the moon in the coming years.
As part of that effort, six ESA scientists returned on Saturday from spending two weeks in a mock lunar landscape fashioned out of a volcano in Hawaii.