China's bold plan to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon before returning to earth moved a step forward with a test craft shifting into lunar orbit to conduct further tests, state media reported yesterday. The service module of a lunar orbiter that flew back to earth in November had been sitting in a position that synchronised it with the earth's orbit, known as the second Lagrange point. It separated from the orbiter in November. The craft, loaded with support systems for operating a spaceship, would collect further data to help plan the 2017 Chang'e 5 mission, China Central Television said. Chang'e 5 is being designed to make a soft landing on the moon and collect at least 2kg of rock and soil samples before returning to earth. If successful, that would make China only the third country after the United States and Russia to meet such a challenge. China's programme has received Russian help, but has largely developed independently of America's, which is now in its sixth decade of putting people into space. China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, the only other country after Russia and the US to achieve manned space travel independently. It also has launched a temporarily crewed space station. Beijing's lunar exploration programme has already launched a pair of orbiting lunar probes, and in 2013 landed a craft on the moon with a rover onboard. None of those were designed to return to earth. China also has hinted at a possible crewed mission to the moon. In November, Beijing recovered an experimental spacecraft that flew around the moon and back in a test run for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. The eight-day trip was the first time in almost four decades that a spacecraft has returned to earth after travelling around the moon. China is also developing the Long March 5 heavier-lift rocket needed to launch a more permanent space station, to be called Tiangong 2.