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China gets set to launch its first moon lander by year's end

Image: Chang'e 3
Space engineers are working on China’s lunar rover for the Chang'e 3 mission.Shanghai Aerospace System Engineering

BEIJING — China will land its first probe on the moon by the end of this year, state media reported on Wednesday.

The Chang'e 3 mission to the lunar surface would mark the next step in an ambitious space program that includes eventually building a space station. 

In 2007, China launched its first moon orbiter, Chang'e 1, named after a lunar goddess. That probe took images of the surface and analyzed the distribution of elements. Chang'e 2 was launched in 2010, orbited the moon for several months, then headed out to reach the Earth-Sun L2 gravitational balance point and fly by asteroid Toutatis.

Chang'e 3 marks the start of the second phase in China's three-stage lunar exploration program, focusing on surface operations. The third phase would involve bringing samples of lunar soil and rock back to Earth around 2017.

The official Xinhua news agency said Chang'e 3 was on track for a landing toward the end of the year.  "Chang'e 3 has officially entered its launch implementation stage following its research and construction period," it cited a government statement as saying. 

"The mission will see a Chinese orbiter soft-land, or land on the moon after using a technique to slow its speed, on a celestial body for the first time," Xinhua added, without providing further details. 

Chinese scientists have talked of the possibility of sending humans to the moon after 2020. 

China successfully completed its latest manned space mission in June, when three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory critical in Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020. 

China is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers, the United States and Russia, which decades ago learned the docking techniques China is only now mastering. 

Beijing insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities and said Beijing is pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.