China's second lunar satellite, the Chang'e-2, will begin to break from the moon orbit on Thursday and fly off into outer space to conduct expanded exploration, China Central Television (CCTV) reports.
The satellite was normal and stable after it reached its six-month designed life and conducted major tasks on April 1, and the fuel left over on the satellite is sufficient, CCTV said, citing information from the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND).
Chang'e-2 was launched on Oct. 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 China would launch its third unmanned probe to the moon, Chang'e-3, in 2013.
"A soft-landing on the moon will be the main aim for Chang'e-3," 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.
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.
China is expected to launch its fifth lunar probe, Chang'e-5, in 2017 to send back moon rock samples to earth, Ye told Xinhua in early March.
A lunar landing probe, lunar surface patrol device and other equipment would be carried by Chang'e-5, said Ye.
"Chang'e-5 will also carry a drilling machine to get moon rock from a depth of 2 meters underground," he said.
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.
China Lunar Probe to Fly into Deep Space