China could send its first unmanned probe to the moon within the next two and a half years, a leading scientific official has revealed.
The Chang'e Program, which is awaiting government approval, is named after the Chinese legend about a young fairy who flies to the moon.
"We will be able to embark on a maiden unmanned mission within two and a half years if the government endorses the scheme now," Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's lunar exploration program, said in Beijing on Saturday.
Ouyang, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the nation's top institution of its kind, said China should not drag its feet in sending the lunar probe, given the Earth's nearest neighbor probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development.
Another indication of the importance China attaches to lunar exploration was given by remarks made by Luan Enjie, director of China National Space Administration, at a national civil aerospace working conference held over the weekend.
He announced China will finish the first phase of the Chang'e Program by 2010.
After years of painstaking feasibility studies, Chinese scientists have worked out a lunar probe program, which consists of three stages, including orbiting, landing and returning from the moon with lunar soil and rock samples, according to Luan.
The first phase of the project will see China send a lunar orbiter spacecraft to circle the moon and map its surface to get three-dimensional images of it.
This part of mission will also deal with analyzing the content and distribution of useful elements on the moon surface, measure the density of lunar soil and exploring the lunar space environment, according to Luan.
The subsequent two phases of the Chang'e Program will involve wheeled robotic explorers, which roll on the moon and collect lunar soil for research, he said.
The announcement of the Chang'e Program is timed just several days before the country's political advisers and the National People's Congress delegates meet in Beijing this week, helping it attract legislators' attention.
Luan did not mention a timetable for a manned lunar landing. Ouyang said a piloted mission to the moon is not currently a goal for China, although, ultimately, the country will send man to the Earth's natural satellite.
(Xinhua News Agency March 3, 2003)