China’s next mission into space will not occur this year and may not involve a moon landing, a veteran official with the space programme has said.
The time and objectives of the space mission have not been decided yet, Long Lehao, director of the science and technology committee of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, told the Modern Express in an interview .
It was widely expected that Chang'e 4 mission would include a moon landing. Long did not specify why a moon landing might be not take place.
"China had previously announced plans for an engineering test mission to the moon that was expected this year," said Dr Morris Jones, an Australia-based space expert. "These remarks suggest that the mission has been delayed," he said.
"This is not a big problem. Space missions slip their launch dates regularly," he added. "The first Chinese moon landing itself was delayed from its originally expected launch date."
Long's comments come only months after China’s first-ever lunar rover suffered technical difficulties on the moon surface in January, after landing successfully there in December.
Long said that to this day it was unclear why the rover malfunctioned.
“Without knowing the cause of the disease, it is impossible to accurately prescribe a remedy,” he was quoted as saying.
Long’s comments provide a rare insight into the uncertainty that the Chinese space programme is facing a decade after it sent Yang Liwei, China’s first taikonaut, into orbit.
In December last year, the Chang’e 3 mission successfully sent the nation’s first lunar rover on the moon. The four-wheeled rover named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, dominated national debate on social media until it malfunctioned in January.
China’s space agency surprised watchers by releasing timely - and light-hearted - information on the rover’s technical problems, including the brief moments in which it woke up from its "slumber".
“Some of my body parts will not obey their commands,” a fictional first-person account of the rover posted on its Weibo microblog read. “I know there is a possibility I will not make it through this night.”
The forthcoming Chang’e 4 mission was originally designed as a backup for the Chang’e 3 mission that sent Jade Rabbit to the moon.
Long said the mission would not happen this year. The programme’s next step would be to send a Long March-3B rocket to the moon and attempt to return to earth safely without a landing, he said.
The Chang’e 4 mission is expected to prepare the ground for China’s first attempt to bring moon samples back to earth on Chang’e 5 by 2017, Wu Zhijun, a spokesman for the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence said last year.