China eyes exploration of Mars

Beijing - China's space exploration plans include not only missions to the Moon but also Mars, the official Xinhua news agency on Wednesday cited a government official as saying.

China will also seek international cooperation for its deep space plans, it quoted Sun Laiyan, head of the China National Space Administration, as saying.

"In the coming five years, China will on the basis of its Moon probes actively plan deep space exploration, focusing on lunar and Mars exploration," Xinhua said in a brief report.

China expects to launch its first lunar probe next year, state media has said. It will spend a year orbiting the moon to collect three-dimensional images and data on the moon's surface and environment.

The satellite, which Xinhua said has a budget of 1,4-million yuan (about R1,25-million), is part of a three-stage project first approved in 2004 that includes a lunar vehicle by 2012 and a module to collect rock samples by 2017.

United States President George Bush in 2004 unveiled plans for a human mission back to the moon by 2020 and an eventual trip to Mars and other planets in the solar system.

China's space programme has prompted worries in some quarters about a possible arms race in space, but Beijing insists its plans are peaceful.

China became the third country to successfully send a man into space in 2003 and regularly sends up research satellites as part of an ambitious space programme.