China will launch its first lunar probe this year, and expects to be able to land a man on the Moon within 15 years, a senior space official has confirmed.
Reaching the moon has long been a goal of China's space programme
The Chang'e-1 lunar probe will be launched later this year aboard a Long March 3A rocket.
The probe will provide 3D images of the Moon, survey the lunar landscape, study lunar microwaves and estimate the thickness of the Moon's soil.
China became the third nation to place a human in space in October 2003.
The Moon exploration programme includes a planned lunar fly-by in 2007, a "soft landing" in 2012, return of lunar samples by 2017, and landing an astronaut on the Moon within 15 years.
"The goal to land an astronaut on the Moon can surely be achieved in 15 years," said Huang Chunping, a senior space official, while attending the annual full session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top political advisory body.
Mr Huang gave no date for the launch of the lunar probe, but confirmed it would be later this year.
For the full Moon exploration programme, he admitted that unexpected difficulties could affect the timetable, but said he had "full confidence" in the development of the country's rocket industry.
Mr Huang said that China's next generation carrier rocket, likely to be named Long March 5, would be ready for launch in "seven or eight years," and the vehicles' engines had already been successfully tested.
The long-awaited new rocket would "use non-toxic fuels" and increase the payload capacity of the Long March series from nine tonnes to 25 tonnes, he said.
Mr Huang also said China would launch its third manned spaceflight, Shenzhou VII, next year, with three astronauts on board. They will attempt the Chinese programme's first space walk.
The Shenzhou VII launch was planned for this year, but work is still being done on the suits that astronauts will wear during the space walk.
Two of the three astronauts are expected to venture outside the capsule, but no decision has been made on how long the walks would be.
Mr Huang said the timing of the flight will depend on progress on finishing the space suits, and would not be timed for the Summer Olympics, which start in August 2008 in Beijing.