BEIJING -- China is setting its eyes on the moon and Mars, announcing an ambitious program that it hopes will make it a leading space power.
The goals were proclaimed in a white paper the space agency released Tuesday. The latest version of the plan, which is updated every five years, calls for launching an unmanned Mars probe in 2020, two landings on the moon with an eye on a future manned landing, and a widening of China's network of navigation satellites as part of its 21st-century Silk Road initiative.
Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, said China's goal is to become one of the world's three top space powers, alongside the United States and Russia.
As outlined in the white paper, China will launch a Mars probe in 2020 that will orbit the Red Planet and then land to explore the surface. The mission will test technologies that China can use in future ventures, including the collection and return of Mars samples and the exploration of a nearby asteroid. China tried sending a Mars probe on a failed Russian launch in 2011, but this time it will go it alone.
The space development white paper also describes two planned soft landings on the moon. China will launch the Chang'e-5 lunar probe by the end of 2017 to land on the moon and return with samples. And it will launch the Chang'e-4 lunar probe around 2018 to make the first soft landing on the far side of the moon. That mission is intended to position a relay station that China will use to develop technologies for communications with the far side of the moon.
China made a successful soft landing with the Chang'e-3 lunar probe in December 2013, becoming only the third nation after the U.S. and Russia to do so. Wu announced Tuesday that China also has set its sights on an eventual manned lunar landing and is investigating the technical feasibility of a variety of methods. The last men to walk on the moon were the American astronauts of Apollo 17 in 1972.
The white paper also addresses how space technologies can help China realize its 21st-century Silk Road initiative that encompasses both land and maritime routes. China will work to broaden the region covered by the network of BeiDou navigation satellites, which is its version of the GPS network, to serve the nations of Central, South and Southeast Asia.
The BeiDou network will give these regions an alternative to the GPS network for car navigation systems and the like and will help give China greater influence on the world stage.
China also aims to have its own orbiting space station completed by around 2022, and the projects planned for the next five years include a mission to launch the Tianzhou 1 unmanned cargo spacecraft for docking with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory. This mission will test technologies for delivering supplies to the future space station.