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China To Launch Moon Mission By End Of 2013?

20/06/2013 09:59 BST | Updated 19/08/2013 10:12 BST

China's accelerating space program will take another small step forward later in 2013, when it will send its first unmanned probe to land on the Moon.

Three Chinese astronauts ('taikonauts') are currently in orbit around Earth in the country's first manned space station, the Tiangong-1, after only the fifth manned space mission in the country's history.

That prototype module is only a temporary outpost, but China is said to be looking to build a more permanent rival to the International Space Station before too long.

But before that happens the China National Space Administration has designs on the Moon.

According to a report by Space.com, the country has already completed a 40-day test of the robot here on Earth. Now the website Dragon In Space is reporting that the real Chang'e 3 mission could launch as soon as December.

If successful the mission would land the first robotic Lunar probe on the Moon for many decades.

Once the probe reaches the Moon, however, you can bet Nasa will be watching -- literally. The American space agency's Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO) is currently zipping around the Moon from 100km up, and its principal investigator Mark Robinson says that "it will certainly be fun to watch their progress".

"Perhaps soon NASA will also have vehicles exploring the surface of the moon? The moon is the first step in our journey as humans leave the Earth," he told Space.com.

By 2020 China wants to be able to return samples from the Moon, with long term plans of a manned mission to the Lunar surface also - potentially - on the cards.

China says that its space program is peaceful, but a recent Pentagon report highlighted its dramatic growth and said it "underscored" the need for consistent and wide-ranging dialogue with Beijing.

Check out the full report over at Space.com.