China aims to launch its first unmanned lunar lander by the end of this year, complete with a radio-controlled rover to transmit images and dig into the surface to test samples.
The Chang’e 3 lander has officially moved from the design to the launch stage, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence said.
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. A staffed lunar mission could also be launched if officials decide to combine the human spaceflight and lunar exploration programmes.
China has recently focused on its manned 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, in seven years.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003.