China will be ready to launch its first unmanned space shuttle before the end of the year, a pro-Beijing paper said yesterday. The Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po quoted unidentified Beijing experts as saying the spacecraft would be launched from the Jiuquan launch centre in Gansu province. The paper said finishing touches were being added to a launch-pad known as the rocket vertical assembling centre, which is the same as that used by the United States to launch its shuttles. The Long March 2E rocket, which can carry a capsule weighing a maximum 10 tonnes, would be augmented into a stronger 2F rocket. Experts were quoted as saying China had 'solid technology' to retrieve the capsule. 'Sixteen of the 17 retrievable satellites we have launched came back in one piece,' said one aerospace expert. He said mainland scientists had developed solar energy technology to provide an additional power supply for the shuttle's return. The paper said China had secured lifting and retrieval technologies, two of the six essential technologies for a manned shuttle. The other four areas - space safety, life support for astronauts, ground-to-space communications and logistical support - were under development or near completion. They said the space project would contribute to research into a 'new metal' which could not be produced on earth, and the development of a space station providing repair and maintenance services for satellites.