Visitors on the roof of a skyscraper gaze at the moon as it rises over the skyline of Shanghai, China

China to launch moon probe by end of 2013

China will land its first probe on the moon by the end of the year, complete with a radio-controlled rover.

The Chang'e 3 lander and its rover, which will transmit images and dig into the surface to test samples, has officially moved from the design to the launch stage, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

It and another lander will remain on the moon's surface, although China plans to follow those with landers that will return to Earth with samples, and a crewed lunar mission could also be launched if officials decide to combine the human spaceflight and lunar exploration programs.

"Chang'e Three has officially entered its launch implementation stage following its research and construction period," Xinhua 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.

The launch is bad news for those companies taking part in Google’s Lunar X Prize competition to successfully launch a robotic spacecraft that can land and travel across the surface of the moon by 2015.

The rules of the contest, designed to encourage teams to complete their missions quickly, state that the value of the Grand Prize will decrease from $20m (£12.9m) to $15m whenever a government-led mission lands on and explores the lunar surface.

China’s aspiration to explore the moon started in 2007, when it launched its first moon orbiter, the Chang'e One orbiter, named after a lunar goddess, which took images of the surface and analysed the distribution of elements.

That launch marked the first step in China's three-stage moon mission, to be followed by an unmanned moon mission and then the retrieval of lunar soil and stone samples around 2017, while Chinese scientists have talked of the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020.

China has recently focused on its manned flight programme, sending two missions to temporarily crew the Tiangong 1 experimental space station. Launched in 2011, the station is due to be replaced by a three-module permanent station, Tiangong 2, by 2020.

The country’s military-backed space programme sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation after Russia and the USA to achieve manned space travel independently.

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