China's space ambitions: Robot on Mars, a human on the moon

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FILE - This artist's rendering provided to China's Xinhua News Agency on Aug. 23, 2016, by the lunar probe and space project center of Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, shows a concept design for the Chinese Mars 2020 rover and lander. China's landing of its third probe on the moon is part of an increasingly ambitious space program that has a robot rover en route to Mars, is developing a reusable space plane and plans to put humans back on the lunar surface. (Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense via Xinhua via AP, File)

BEIJING – China’s landing of its third probe on the moon is part of an increasingly ambitious space program that has a robot rover en route to Mars, is developing a reusable space plane and is planning to put humans back on the lunar surface.

The Chang’e 5, the first effort to bring lunar rocks to Earth since the 1970s, collected samples on Wednesday, the Chinese space agency announced. The probe landed Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moon's near side.

Space exploration is a political trophy for the ruling Communist Party, which wants global influence to match China's economic success.

China is a generation behind the United States and Russia, but its secretive, military-linked program is developing rapidly. It is creating distinctive missions that, if successful, could put Beijing on the leading edge of space flight.

The coming decade will be “quite critical” in space exploration, said Kathleen Campbell, an astrobiologist and geologist at The University of Auckland.

“This is where we’re going to transform out of near Earth orbit and back into what people will call ‘deep space,’” Campbell said.

In 2003, China became the third nation to launch an astronaut into orbit on its own, four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Its first temporary orbiting laboratory was launched in 2011 and a second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station to be launched after 2022.

This week’s landing is “a historic step in China’s cooperation with the international community in the peaceful use of outer space,” said a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying.