China has announced plans to launch another robotic probe to Moon in 2017 aiming to bring to Earth a sample of lunar soil.
The Chang'e 5 mission is believed to represent the last step before China attempts to land humans on the lunar surface sometime in early 2020s and will be preceded by Chang’e 4, verifying the concept of the current Cheng’e 3.
The plans for the sample return 2017 robotic mission have been announced just two days after China successfully landed the Cheng’e 3 probe and the Yutu rover on the Moon, becoming the third country in the history to have performed a soft-landing on the lunar surface. The last time any country has placed a probe on the lunar surface was 37 years ago.
According to available information, the development of the Chang'e 5 probe is already underway.
"After the success of the Chang'e 3's mission, the lunar exploration programme will enter the third phase, with the main goal being to achieve unmanned automatic collection of samples and returning them (to the Earth)," spokesman Wu Zhijian told a news conference.
The current Chang'e 3 probe accompanied by a small rover will survey the Moon’s geology and search for natural resources. The two spacecraft will have to withstand temperatures ranging from 120 Celsius to minus 180 Celsius.
Details of China’s plans after 2017 have not yet been revealed.
Despite concerns of other world powers, the USA at the first place, China maintains the technology it is developing as part of its ambitious space programme will only serve peaceful purposes.
"Our country's lunar exploration programme is a technology programme for the peaceful uses of outer space, as well as an open programme," said Wu, citing cooperation with Russian and European counterparts and international bodies.
The US Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, however, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.
Analysts say that despite the current successes, including a 15-day manned mission to a station in low Earth orbit, China's space programme still lags behind those of the US and Russia.
Zhou Jianliang, chief engineer of the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre, said the country did not have 24-hour monitoring of probes operating far from the Earth's orbit, as its two deep space monitoring stations were both located in China.
"It is imperative to build a deep space monitoring station abroad in order to make up for blind measurements and realise round-the-clock monitoring," Zhou said, but gave no details.
In recent years, the international space community has turned its sights back to the Moon, seeing it as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. Several missions have been launched in the past years, gathering information and testing new technology.
The US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is currently circling the Moon to detail its features and resources as a prelude to building a lunar outpost. In 2009, India's lunar orbiter, the Chandrayaan-1, detected water on the Moon. Two years earlier, Japan sent a spacecraft to orbit it.