China is expected to send an astronaut into orbit soon
China's rapidly-developing space programme could see it launch an unmanned mission to the moon in less than three years, officials say.
Scientists are waiting for the green light from government to press ahead with the ambitious plan.
"We will be able to embark on a maiden unmanned mission within two-and-a-half years if the government endorses the scheme now,"
Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's lunar exploration programme told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
The news comes just months before China is expected to send an astronaut into orbit.
The widely-expected mission would make China the third nation to send a human into space, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
Ouyang told the China Daily that sending people to the moon was not currently a goal for China, although it could happen in the future.
Sun Jiadong, a senior Beijing-based space expert, told the newspaper that China would first launch a lunar explorer satellite to map the moon's surface.
China's space programme is developing quickly
Eventually, it will launch a shuttle capable of collecting samples on the moon and returning to Earth, the report said.
China is pressing ahead swiftly with its fledgling space programme, and has thus far launched four unmanned vessels into orbit.
The Shenzhou IV, or Divine Vessel IV, which successfully returned to earth on 5 January after a 162-hour flight, was seen as the final dress rehearsal before sending up an astronaut.
Beijing has vowed to press ahead with the plan despite the loss of the US space shuttle Columbia last month, in which seven astronauts died.
China's space programme has close ties to the military, and precise launch dates are never announced in advance.