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China plans moon-walk for 2017

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China is planning to send a manned mission to the moon as early as 2017, according to reports, to investigate the amount of helium-3 in the lunar soil. China first put humans in space in 2003, and has recently completed a second, longer, manned stint in orbit.

Following the success of the latest mission aboard the Shenzhou 6 craft, Chinese space agency planners say that they are now developing another four space craft with a view to building a permanent Chinese space station, and eventually going to the moon.

China says its first lunar orbiter could be ready for lift-off as early as 2007, Reuters reports. It also plans to launch its next manned mission in 2007, which could feature China's first ever space walk.

The attraction of the moon is not purely scientific. Establishing a base of operations could potentially be very profitable.

Helium-3 has great potential as a non-polluting fuel source, but there is virtually none on Earth. The moon, meanwhile is relatively rich in the isotope.

In 2000 researchers reported they had proved helium-3 fusion could work, but acknowledged that it is still a long way from being ready to produce power. Although technology to exploit helium-3 is not yet in place, its value could be astronomical (no pun intended) as a replacement for oil and gas. ®

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