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China will launch its third spacecraft to the moon in 2013, in line with a growing lunar exploration program that has a vision for a manned space station and potentially putting a man on the moon in the next decade.
China's state media agency on Wednesday quoted the Beijing Morning Post in reporting that the Chang'e 3, named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, “includes a lander and rover that will jointly carry out exploration activities for the first time in world history.”
The reported cited Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's lunar exploration program. Ouyang said Chang'e 3 would "make a soft landing on the moon, as parachutes are not an option because of the lack of air on the moon."
The rover will carry a nuclear-powered battery, and is projected to last up to 30 years.
China has been looking to deploy bigger spacecraft for longer missions, allowing it to build a manned space station and potentially put a man on the moon, experts said.
The 13-day voyage of Shenzhou-9, which returned to Earth last June, was China's longest-ever space mission and included the nation's first woman astronaut among its three crew members.
The dimensions of China's space programme will grow significantly, said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a specialist on China's space programme at France's National Centre for Scientific Research.
She said future vehicles would allow for larger space modules, longer missions and more powerful launch vehicles.
"Longer periods in space - one to three months - cannot take place unless there is a vehicle bigger than the 8.5 tonne Tiangong-1, which also did not appear to have a resupply system," she told the Agence France-Presse.
"Tiangong-1... will be followed by two other versions with more powerful 'life support' systems... and will possibly be capable of docking with a second vehicle."
China is also developing the Long March 5, a next-generation booster rocket that will be needed if the nation hopes to place a bigger space station in orbit, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College.
"Launching that space station... depends on the successful development of a new heavy launch vehicle, the Long March 5," she said.
"I would expect to see this large space station in orbit within the next 10 years - which could make it the de facto replacement for the now orbiting International Space Station (ISS)," said Johnson-Freese.
She was referring to the life expectancy of the ISS - run by the American, Russian, Japanese, European and Canadian space agencies -- which is likely to function only to around 2020.
China has never been invited to join the ISS.
Sourbes-Verger said further advances in China's space station program would "guarantee" that the country plays a major role should any eventual cooperation with the ISS take place.
To realize its ambitions beyond 2020, which may include sending a man to the moon, China has also been advancing its "Chang'e" exploration programme. This entails satellite launches to explore the lunar surface.
"Likely within the next five to eight years China will also make a decision as to whether to pursue a human lunar mission," Johnson-Freese said.
Meanwhile the United States, after retiring its space shuttle fleet, is also developing a new rocket and technologies to place a man on an asteroid or on Mars, she said.
"Both countries are moving forward, but not in a competitive path," she said.
China's space program remains far behind the Americans. This was highlighted by the fact that the manual space docking trumpeted by the Chinese on the Shenzhou-9 mission was done by the Americans in the 1960s.
"If there is a space race going on, I think it is in Asia," Johnson-Freese said, pointing out that India had also set ambitious goals.