BEIJING (AFP) - China plans to send a rover to Mars to explore the Red Planet, a top space official announced on Friday (April 22), in the latest step of its ambitious space programme.
The authorities approved the mission in January, National Space Administration director Xu Dazhe told a press conference in Beijing, according to a transcript.
The aim was to launch around 2020, he said, calling the timing "a challenge" that would be "a giant leap" for the country's space capabilities.
"What we want to achieve is to orbit Mars, land, and deploy the rover in one mission, which will be quite difficult to achieve."
China is pouring billions into its space programme and working to catch up with the US and Europe, but has already been beaten to Mars by Asian neighbour India, which put a low-cost probe into orbit around the Red Planet in September 2014.
Once on the Martian surface, Xu said, the Chinese rover could study the planet's soil, atmosphere, environment, and look for traces of water.
"Researching these matters is really researching humanity itself and the origins of life," he said, adding: "Only by completing this Mars probe mission can China say it has truly embarked on the exploration of deep space."
China has an ambitious, military-run, multi-billion-dollar space programme that Beijing sees as symbolising the country's progress and a marker of its rising global stature.
China's recent space efforts have been focused on exploring the moon. The nation's first lunar rover - the Yutu, or Jade Rabbit - was launched in late 2013, but it has since been beset by mechanical troubles.
By 2018, the country aims to land its Chang'e-4 probe - named for the moon goddess in Chinese mythology - on the dark side of the moon.
But for the most part it has so far replicated activities that the US and Soviet Union pioneered decades ago.
The US has landed two rovers on Mars and the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency have also sent missions to Mars.
China's first attempt to send a satellite into Mars orbit floundered in 2011 when the Russian rocket carrying the payload failed to make it out of the Earth's orbit.