China plans to land probes on moon and Mars by 2020

China vows to accelerate its space efforts as it sets out plans to become the first country to soft land a probe on the far side of the moon, by around 2018, and to launch a Mars probe by 2020.

Permanently staffed space station on course to be fully operating in 2022

China put a pair of astronauts in space in October to spend a month aboard an experimental space lab. The country's leadership has now articulated a vision to get a probe to Mars and back by 2020. (How Hwee Young/EPA)

China vowed Tuesday to speed up the development of its space industry as it set out its plans to become the first country to soft land a probe on the far side of the moon, by around 2018, and launch its first Mars probe by 2020.

"To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly," read a white paper setting out the country's space strategy for the next five years.

It says China aims to use space for peaceful purposes and to guarantee national security, and to carry out cutting-edge scientific research.

The white paper, released by the information office of China's cabinet, points to the growing ambitions of China's already rapidly advancing space program.

China places great emphasis on the development of its space industry, seen as a symbol of national prestige that will raise the country's standing in the world. Although the white paper doesn't mention it, China's eventual goal is to land an astronaut on the moon.

Permanently crewed space station

While Russia and the United States have more experience in manned space travel, China's military-backed program has made steady progress in a comparatively short time.

Since China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, it has staged a spacewalk and landed a rover on the moon in 2013 — the first time humans had soft landed anything on the moon since the 1970s.

Last month, two astronauts returned from a month-long stay aboard China's Tiangong 2 experimental space station, the country's sixth and longest crewed mission. A fully functioning, permanently crewed space station is on course to begin operations six years from now and is slated to run for at least a decade.

Astronauts Jing Haipeng, right, and Chen Dong, left, spent 30 days aboard China's Tiangong 2 space lab starting in October. (Chinatopix/Associated Press)

The white paper reiterated China's plans to launch its first Mars probe by 2020, saying it would explore and bring back samples from the red planet, explore the Jupiter system and "conduct research into major scientific questions such as the origin and evolution of the solar system, and search for extraterrestrial life."

The paper says the Chang'e-4 lunar probe will help shed light on the formation and evolution of the moon.

He Qisong, a space security expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said that achieving humankind's first soft landing on the far side of the moon is a newly stated goal that indicates China has mastered the underlying technology.

"China never talks big and says something it's unable to achieve," he said.