Officials said Beijing aimed to have a permanent manned space station in service by 2022 as part if its beefed-up lunar exploration program. Qu Yiguang, deputy commander of the Long March-5 project said: “From next year, we will carry out the launch mission of our national space station.”
Lunar mission spokesman Pei Zhaoyu said any decision to put astronauts on the moon would be based on scientific needs as well as technical and economic conditions
He said: “I think future lunar exploration activities should be carried out by a combination of man and machine.”
China carried out the first landing on the far side of the moon last year and launched a robotic probe to Mars in July.
The Long March-5, China’s largest carrier rocket, blasted off at in the early hours of Tuesday morning from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern Chinese island of Hainan carrying the Chang’e-5 spacecraft.
The robotic spacecraft will bring back rocks from the moon in the first bid by any country to retrieve lunar surface samples since the 1970s.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) hailed the launch a success and said in a statement that the rocket flew for nearly 37 minutes before sending the spacecraft on its intended trajectory.
The Chang’e-5 mission, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect lunar material to help scientists understand more about the moon’s origins and formation.
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The mission will test China’s ability to remotely acquire samples from space ahead of more complex missions with experts saying the program underlines Beijing’s ambitions in space.
If the mission is completed as planned, it would make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, joining the US and the Soviet Union.
Upon entering the moon’s orbit, the spacecraft is intended to deploy a lander and an ascender to the lunar surface.
The landing is due to take place next week and the probe will be on the moon for about two days.
The Long March-5 mission marks the end of the third phase of China’s lunar exploration program.
Chief program designer Wu Weiren said the fourth phase would see the Chang’e-7 spacecraft conduct a comprehensive exploration of the moon’s Antarctic topography, material composition and space environment.
The US, which plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, landed 12 astronauts there in its Apollo programme over six flights from 1969 to 1972, and brought back rocks and soil for analysis.
The Soviet Union deployed three successful robotic lunar sample-return missions in the 1970s.