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China will head for the moon this year

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China's National Space Administration (NSA) is planning to send a probe to the moon later this year, according to reports.

The state-controlled Xinhau news agency reports that Sun Laiyan, director of the NSA, was speaking at Beijing Jiaotong University. He said: "The moon probe project is the third milestone in China's space technology after satellite and manned spacecraft projects, and a first step for us in exploring deep space."

China says its space programme will advance in three stages: the first is "circling the moon", the second; "landing on the moon", and the third "returning to Earth". For the sake of the astronauts, we hope there is not too much of a gap between stages two and three*.

Mission planners say the lander mission, with a moon rover, is slated for 2012. Meanwhile, manned missions will also continue. China says the next step will be to try spacewalking and docking two orbiting vehicles.

Sun obliquely acknowledged international concern over China flexing its spacefaring muscles. He said: "Space technology reflects a nation's overall power and is an important facet of the modernisation of national defence. If China had no atomic bombs or hydrogen bombs and had not launched its first satellite since the 1960s, China could not be called an influential country and would not enjoy the same international status."

The space agency chief also said China will launch a network of more than 30 satellites to establish its own navigation and positioning system, as well as 12 North Dipper satellites, which will sit in geostationary orbits, according to a Reuters report. ®

*We are joking. We know it is a sample return mission, not an astronaut-return flight. Now, g'way.

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