BEIJING - China is expected to launch its fifth lunar probe, Chang'e-5, in 2017 to send back a moon rock sample to earth, a top Chinese space scientist told Xinhua Wednesday.
A lunar landing probe, lunar surface patrol device and other equipment would be carried by Chang'e-5, said Ye Peijian, chief designer of Chang'e-1, the country's first moon probe, and chief commander of the Chang'e-2 and Chang'e-3 missions.
"Chang'e-5 will also carry a drilling machine to get moon rock from a depth of 2 meters underground," he said.
He revealed that experts from Hong Kong and Macao would participate in the lunar probe project.
Ye was speaking ahead of his attendance at the annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee, China's top political advisory body, which is to convene Thursday.
China launched its first lunar probe, Chang'e-1, named after the country's mythical Moon Goddess, on October 24, 2007, from the southwestern Sichuan Province. The probe ended its 16-month mission on March 1, 2009, when it crashed into the moon's surface.
The second lunar probe, Chang'e-2, was launched on October 1 last year. It entered its long-term lunar orbit on November 3, beginning a six-month mission to take high-resolution images of the moon's Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows.
Space authorities have revealed that China would launch its third unmanned probe to the moon, Chang'e-3, in 2013.
"A soft-landing on moon will be a main aim for Chang'e-3," Ye said.
A China-designed moon rover would land with Chang'e-3, he said.
The moon rover is a robot that can move and accomplish complicated tasks of detecting, collecting and analyzing samples.
After Chang'e-3, China would launch Chang'e-4 with the goal of achieving automatic patrols on the moon, Ye said.
But a launch time for the fourth lunar probe remains unknown.
According to China's three-phase moon exploration plan, the first phase was the launch of Chang'e-2. The second will be when Chang'e-3 lands on the moon in 2013. Then, in 2017, a moon rock sample will be returned to earth.
Space experts have said the country would conduct more than 20 space missions this year as it accelerated efforts to improve space technologies.
Last year China conducted 15 space missions.