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Reuters, Published December 16 2013

VIDEO: China eyes collection of lunar samples in 2017

BEIJING - China aims to launch its next unmanned lunar probe in 2017, with the aim of collecting and bringing home lunar samples, an official said on Monday, after the country's first probe landed successfully on the moon over the weekend.

China's leaders have set a priority on advancing its space program, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

The Chang'e 3 probe, named after a goddess in traditional Chinese mythology, landed on the moon on Saturday, setting down a lunar rover called the "Jade Rabbit."

The development of the Chang'e 5 probe, tasked with the moon sampling mission, is well underway and it is expected to be launched around 2017, a spokesman for the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said.

"After the success of the Chang'e 3's mission, the lunar exploration program will enter the third phase, with the main goal being to achieve unmanned automatic collection of samples and returning them (to the earth)," spokesman Wu Zhijian told a news conference.

China has yet to announce its moon ambitions beyond the sampling mission, Wu said, when asked if it planned to send astronauts there. He insisted the plans were for peaceful purposes.

"Our country's lunar exploration program is a technology program for the peaceful uses of outer space, as well as an open program," said Wu, citing cooperation with Russian and European counterparts and international bodies.

The U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, however, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.

Despite considerable advances, China's space program still lags those of the United States and Russia.

Zhou Jianliang, chief engineer of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, said the country did not have 24-hour monitoring of probes operating far from earth's orbit, as its two deep space monitoring stations were both located in China.

"It is imperative to build a deep space monitoring station abroad in order to make up for blind measurements and realize round-the-clock monitoring," Zhou said, but gave no details.

In China's latest manned space mission in June, three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory, part of Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020.