BEIJING China plans to launch a lunar orbiter in the second half of 2007, in a first step towards a lunar probe, Xinhua news agency quoted the director of the National Space Administration as saying on Sunday.
If the Chang'e I orbiter succeeds in orbiting the moon, the next step would be an attempt to land. Ultimately a moon rover would collect samples before returning to earth, Sun Laiyan said in a speech at Beijing Jiaotong University.
"The moon probe project is the third milestone in China's space technology after satellite and manned spacecraft projects, and a first step for us in exploring deep space," Sun said.
Plans for a lunar orbiter launch in 2007 were included in China's white paper on its space program, unveiled last year.
The moon rover mission would be due in 2012, Xinhua said, citing unidentified earlier reports.
In 2003, China became only the third country -- after the United States and the former Soviet Union -- to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. In October 2005, it sent two men into orbit and plans a space walk by 2008.
China will continue manned space missions, and would attempt the spacewalk and docking vessels in space, Sun said.
China's space capability aroused international concern in January when it destroyed one of its ageing satellites by launching a missile from earth.
China will develop 12 Beidou or North Dipper satellites, some destined for geostationary orbit. It plans a navigation and positioning system of more than 30 satellites, Sun said.
It would also develop a generation of launch vehicles that were less polluting and costly, but delivered higher performance and greater thrust, he said.