moon surface

China ramping up plans to put an astronaut on the moon

China’s ambitious lunar exploration programme is ramping up with the country announcing it is making “preliminary” preparations to send a man to the moon, state media has said.

In 2003 it became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

It has touted its plans for moon exploration and in late 2013 completed the first lunar “soft landing” since 1976 with the Chang’e-3 craft and its Jade Rabbit rover.

The country also plans to land the first probe ever on the dark side of the moon in 2018, another milestone. 

Yang Liwei, deputy director general of China Manned Space Agency and China’s first man in space, said it will “not take long” for the manned mission to the moon to get official approval and funding.

The report gave no other details, but such a trip could still be many years off.

A government official said last year that China wants to put astronauts on the moon by 2036, in what state media said was the country’s first confirmation of a manned lunar exploration programme.

Advancing China’s space programme is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

China insists its programme is for peaceful purposes, but the US Defence Department has highlighted China’s increasing space capabilities, saying it is pursuing activities aimed to prevent adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis.

Apart from its civilian ambitions, Beijing has tested anti-satellite missiles, and the US Congress has banned NASA from engaging in cooperation with its Chinese counterpart due to security concerns.

China’s space budget is still only about one-tenth of the United States’ outlays, officials have said. According to Chinese state media, China spends about $2bn a year on its space programme, though details are vague.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to fly its first mission for the US Air Force in August when it launches the military’s X-37B miniature spaceplane, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said on Tuesday.

Four previous X-37B missions were launched by United LaunchAlliance Atlas 5 rockets. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and Boeing Co (BA.N).

“SpaceX will be sending the next Air Force payload up into space in August,” Wilson said during webcast testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. She later specified that the payload would be one of the Air Force’s two X-37B spaceplanes.

Launch contracts are usually announced about two years before a flight but the Air Force did not disclose the X-37B contract until Tuesday, a mere two months before the flight. The Air Force declined to say when the contract was awarded or provide other details.

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