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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 November 2007, 11:32 GMT
Beijing 'planning space station'
China's Moon module taking off from Xichang on 24 October
Last month China launched its first lunar orbiter
China intends to launch its own space station in 2020, according to one of the country's leading space experts.

Rocket designer Long Lehao told state media scientists were on track to send "a small-scale 20-ton space workshop" into the Earth's orbit.

Space officials later said the plan had not been finalised.

The claim follows the launch of China's first Moon probe last month, amid what some analysts are calling an undeclared space race with Japan and India.

Since Russia's Mir station was decommissioned in 2001, the only such facility in operation is the International Space Station - a joint project of 16 nations.

Mr Long's comments were carried widely in Chinese media, but a space official later suggested the plans were not so definite.

"China at present has not decided on developing a space station," said Li Guoping, of the China National Space Administration.

Rocket breakthrough

Mr Long told the China Daily newspaper that the station was the third and final step in China's manned space programme.

The first stage was a manned flight in 2003 and the second would come in 2008, when astronauts are expected to walk in space.

"It is the first time a timetable has been made public for the building of the first space station," the China Daily quoted Mr Long as saying.

Mr Long said he was optimistic about the launch of the space station because of breakthroughs in Chinese rocket technology.

The new Long March V carrier rockets, which can carry heavier loads, are expected to be ready for testing in 2013, he said.

The BBC's Dan Griffiths, in Beijing, says China's rapid move into space is aimed at boosting national pride and international prestige.

But earlier this year, Beijing triggered international concern by using a ground-based missile to destroy a weather satellite as part of a weapons test.

Other countries in the region are also expanding and accelerating their space programmes.

Japan launched a lunar orbiter last month and India is planning to follow suit in April next year.

Such moves are fuelling claims of an undeclared Asian space race.

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