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China's Chang'e 4 spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows the Chang’e 4 spacecraft landing on the moon. (CCTV via YouTube)

China’s latest white paper on space exploration confirms the country’s plans to send a rover to the moon’s far side in 2018 and put a rover on Mars in 2020.

Today’s white paper, released by the State Council Information Office, says the Chang’e 4 mission will “conduct in-situ and roving detection and relay communications at Earth-moon L2 point” in 2018, the official China Daily newspaper reported.

In 2012, NASA’s Grail probes crash-landed on the moon’s far side – the so-called “dark side” that never faces Earth. However, no spacecraft has made a soft landing on the moon’s normally hidden half. Communicating with such a spacecraft would require using a relay satellite, such as the one that China plans to send to the L2 gravitational balance point beyond the moon for Chang’e 4.

Chang’e is the name of the mythological Chinese moon goddess, and the name has been used for China’s three previous lunar missions as well. The most recent mission in the series, Chang’e 3, sent a lander and the Yutu rover to the moon’s near side in 2013.

Yet another robotic spacecraft, Chang’e 5, is being prepared to make a lunar landing, collect samples and send them back to Earth. The white paper says Chang’e 5 will be launched by the end of 2017. Chinese space officials had originally envisioned Chang’e 4 as a backup to Chang’e 3, but the spacecraft was repurposed for the far-side mission. As a result, 5 is due to come before 4.

The aim of the Chang’e program is to study the geology of the moon, look for resources that the moon could offer for further exploration – and not incidentally, to demonstrate China’s technological prowess.

Over the next five years, China plans to move ahead with efforts to develop new lines of launch vehicles. “Endeavors will be made to research key technologies and further study the plans for developing heavy-lift launch vehicles,” according to the white paper, which is titled “China’s Space Activities in 2016.”

“The white paper sets out our vision of China as a space power, independently researching, innovating, discovering and training specialist personnel,” China Daily quoted Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of China’s National Space Administration, as saying during a news conference.

In addition to the heavy-lift rockets, China will look into building non-polluting medium-lift rockets and a reusable transportation system for reaching low Earth orbit. The country plans to complete deployment of its 35-satellite BeiDou constellation for global navigation by 2020, and launch a lander and a rover to Mars in that year.

Chinese space officials have previously said that a full-fledged space station known as Tiangong 3 would be put into orbit in the 2020s, and that Beijing’s space program could put astronauts on the moon by the mid-2030s. However, in a report from UPI, Wu said the program will require private investment.

“After six decades of development, government investment alone is not enough to let China’s aerospace program to advance technological progress and benefit the economy and society,” UPI quoted Wu as saying.

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