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China is planning new mission to the Moon

CHINA has announced it is on track to launch a fifth lunar probe with the aim of bringing back soil and rock samples following the successful Moon landing of a space probe.

The new mission planned for 2017 would mark the third and final phase of China's robotic lunar exploration programme and pave the way for possibly landing an astronaut on the Moon after 2020.

Chang'e 3 set down on the Moon on Saturday, marking the first soft landing of a space probe on the lunar surface in 37 years. The landing vehicle will conduct scientific research for a year and its accompanying rover will survey the Moon's structure and probe for natural resources.

A challenge for both is to withstand temperatures ranging from 120C (248F) to minus 180C (minus 184F), said Wu Zhijian, spokesman for the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

Chang'e 4 is intended to be an improved version of the Chang'e 3.

First explored by the former Soviet Union and the US in the 1960s and 1970s, the Moon has become the subject of renewed interest, even as the focus shifts to Mars exploration.

The US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is currently circling the Moon to detail its features and resources as a prelude to building a lunar outpost.

In 2009, India's lunar orbiter, the Chandrayaan-1, detected water on the Moon. Two years earlier, Japan sent a spacecraft to orbit it.

Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane's Space Systems and Industry, said: "People have started saying we are looking for water and we are looking for minerals and it is becoming a much more interesting place to go to, especially for new countries such as China and India who are testing out new technologies.

"It's an ideal place to practise these before they go to Mars and beyond."

China says its Moon exploration programme is about gaining a scientific understanding of the Moon and developing space engineering to prepare it for deep space exploration in the future. It is also a source of great national pride.

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