HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- China plans to take the first step in its ambitious lunar exploration program next April, launching a satellite that will orbit the moon, a space official said on Thursday.
The craft will be followed a few years later by a remote-controlled lunar rover that will perform experiments and send data back to Earth, and, in another few years, a module that will drill out a chunk of the moon and return with it.
China's lunar exploration scheme, which includes long-term plans for piloted moon missions, underscores the ambitious scope of a space program that has come a long way, especially in recent years, since its launch 50 years ago.
On Thursday, China sent a science research satellite into orbit, marking the country's first space mission this year.
In 2003, China became only the third country -- after the United States and Russia -- to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. Last year, it sent two men into space aboard another ship.
Yang Duohe, with China's Lunar Exploration Program Center, said the lunar fly-by was on schedule.
"It will be next year in April," he said.
The moon shot will take several days, including about three days of orbit around the Earth, during which the craft will use gravity as a catapult to fling it on the more than four-day journey to the moon.
Luan Enjie, chief commander of the lunar exploration center, said on Thursday there were still problems to work out.
Among them were how to remotely control the craft, how to handle widely varying temperatures on the moon, and how to coordinate gear that needed to be pointed in a specific direction, such as solar panels and communication equipment.
More generally, he said China was working on ways to standardize its rockets and increase their thrust, which he said was too small at about nine tons. China also had too many types of satellites and the quality was not high enough, he said.
Investment in the lunar exploration programme so far was less than $187 million, he said. He did not give a figure for the total budget.
China's total annual investment in its space programmes was roughly $500 million, another Chinese space official said on a visit to the United States earlier this month.
In the United States, the Bush administration announced a $104 billion plan in September to return Americans to the moon by 2018. Its Apollo program carried the first humans to the moon in 1969.
Japan has also announced plans to land a person on the moon by 2025.
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