China aims to launch next lunar probe in 2017, to collect lunar samples

BEIJING (Reuters) - China aims to launch its next unmanned lunar probe in 2017, with the key aim of collecting and bringing back lunar samples, an official said on Monday, after the country's first probe landed successfully on the moon over the weekend.

China's leaders have set a priority on advancing its space programme, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

The Chang'e-3 probe, named after a goddess in traditional Chinese mythology, landed on the moon on Saturday, setting down a lunar rover called the Jade Rabbit.

The development of the Chang'e-5 probe, tasked with the moon sampling mission, is well underway and it is expected to be launched around 2017, a spokesman for the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence said.

"After the success of the Chang'e 3's mission, the lunar exploration programme will enter the third phase, with the main goal being to achieve unmanned automatic collection of samples and returning them (to the earth)," spokesman Wu Zhijian told a news conference.

China has yet to announce its moon ambitions beyond the sampling mission, Mr Wu said, when asked if it planned to send astronauts there. He insisted the plans were for peaceful purposes.

"Our country's lunar exploration programme is a technology programme for the peaceful uses of outer space, as well as an open programme," said Mr Wu, citing cooperation with Russian and European counterparts and international bodies.

The United States Defence Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, however, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.

In China's latest manned space mission in June, three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory, part of Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020.