Beijing : China was "losing no time" in preparing its first lunar orbiter, Chang'e I, which will most likely be launched in the second half of 2007, a space official said here Sunday.
"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," said Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration.
Sun, also vice director of the Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defence, made the remarks when briefing students at Beijing Jiaotong university on China's space programme.
China's moon exploration programme is divided into three phases – "circling the moon", "landing on the moon" and "back to earth", said Sun.
The launch of the orbiter is the first phase of China's moon exploration programme, and the second phase will involve the launching of a moon rover, he said.
Earlier reports said the moon rover will be launched around 2012.
In the third phase, another rover will land on the moon and return to earth with lunar soil and stone samples, Sun said.
"Space technology reflects a nation's overall power and is an important facet of the modernisation of national defence," he said.
Sun said China is able to research, produce and shoot ground-to-ground, air defence and coastal defence missiles, and its strategic nuclear deterrent is a key component of China's national defence.
"As late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping pointed out, if China had no atomic bombs or hydrogen bombs and had not launched its first satellite since the 1960s, China could not be called an influential country and would not enjoy the same international status," he said.
Modern war relies heavily on information and high-tech, supported by space technologies, Sun said, citing the war in Afghanistan and Iraq where most intelligence gathering, military communications, navigation, positioning and weather reporting activities carried out for American troops have been conducted via satellites.