The planned launch date of Shenzhou VII, China's third manned spacecraft, may be brought forward from next month to sometime this month, Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po newspaper said.
A source reportedly told the paper the launch date will be between September 17, the closing day of the Beijing Paralympics, and October 1, China's National Day.
"Now it is fairly certain it will be before National Day, because the best launch window for Shenzhou VII will be before October 1," the newspaper quoted the source as saying.
But an officer with the General Armament Department of the People's Liberation Army, which oversees the Shenzhou program, told China Daily the report was "not reliable".
The spacecraft will lift off from the Jiuquan rocket launch site in northwestern Gansu province with three astronauts. Two of them will enter the orbital module, with one expected to become the first Chinese spacewalker.
Shenzhou VII has already been assembled and transferred to Jiuquan for final tests, the paper said.
It will be launched on a Long March 2F rocket. On its return, the spacecraft is expected to land within the jurisdiction of Wulanchabu, a city in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the paper said.
Shenzhou VII astronauts will use a Chinese designed and made airlock module for extra vehicular activity - work done by an astronaut away from the Earth and outside of a spacecraft.
The spacesuit is designed for such missions of up to seven hours.
The much-awaited mission is the second stage of the country's three-staged manned space program, which seeks to launch a manned spacecraft, set up a space laboratory, and build a space station before 2020.
The first phase was completed in 2003, when China became the third country to send a person into space on its own. In 2005, the country sent two more astronauts on a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI.
Last year, Chang'e I, China's first lunar probe, was sent into orbit, drawing a close to the first stage of its lunar exploration project, which too involves three phases. The last aims to collect soil samples from the moon, also before 2020.
(China Daily September 3, 2008)