BEIJING (AP) -- China said Wednesday it will launch its first unmanned lunar lander by the end of this year, complete with a radio-controlled rover to transmit images and dig into the moon's surface to test samples.
The Chang'e 3 lander has officially moved from the design to the launch stage, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said in a statement.
The Chang'e 3 and another lander will remain on the moon's surface, although China plans to follow those with landers that will return to Earth with samples.
A crewed lunar mission could also be launched if officials decide to combine the human spaceflight and lunar exploration programs.
China has recently focused on its manned flight program, sending two missions to temporarily crew the Tiangong 1 experimental space station. Launched in 2011, the station is due to be replaced by a three-module permanent station, Tiangong 2, in seven years.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation after Russia and the United States to achieve manned space travel independently. The military-backed space program is a source of enormous national pride and has powered ahead in a series of well-funded, methodically timed steps.
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