China says it plans to land its first probe on the moon in the second half of 2013.
The Chang'e-3 probe will carry a rover unit that can explore the lunar surface. The official China Daily newspaper says the Chang'e-3's rover will be China's most sophisticated robot, and will have a radar that can scan beneath the moon's surface.
In 2017, the Chang'e-5 is scheduled to land and collect two kilograms of samples off the moon's surface.
This news comes after the success of a human space mission in June, which the Shenzhou-9 docked with the Tiangong One space lab. China is only the third country to accomplish this, following the United States and Russia.
Janet Stevens of the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says that while “manned space exploration has been stagnated for a while,” the announcement “sends a signal” to other countries and may encourage more attention to the subject.
In the past decade, China's space program has expanded rapidly, with both manned and unmanned missions. Beijing eventually plans to land humans on the moon, a feat the United States first accomplished in 1969.
China conducted 19 space launches in 2011, one more than the U.S. and 12 fewer than Russia. Its military-run space program is linked to the advancement of military technologies including precision navigation, anti-satellite capabilities and communications. The United States and other countries have urged Beijing to be more transparent about its space program because of its military links.
Stevens says the Chinese have been “vocal about their desire to collaborate with multiple nations,” including the U.S. But Beijing also is willing to aggressively move on with its space program alone.
According to NASA, the U.S. and China are not currently cooperating on any space programs.