China will land its first unmanned probe on the moon by the end of the year, state media have reported.
It’s the second phase of a three-stage programme aimed at orbiting, landing on and returning from the moon.
“Chang’e-3 has officially entered its launch implementation stage following its research and construction period,” the Chinese government said in a statement, reported by Xinhua news agency.
The Chang’e-3, named after a lunar goddess, will complete a soft landing on the moon – a technique of slowing the craft without a parachute – and then explore the surface.
The probe is expected to launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan province.
China launched two lunar orbiters, Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2, in 2007 and 2010 and captured scientific data and high-resolution images.
It hopes to retrieve lunar soil and stone samples by 2017 in the programme’s third and final phase.
There are also plans to build a working space station by 2020 and eventually send a man to the moon.
While ambitious, China’s space exploration programme is still decades behind space superpowers such as the United States and Russia.
The US Defence Department is wary of China’s increased space capabilities and claims Beijing’s real motivation is to prevent its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.