China's fledgling space program will launch an unmanned test flight next month, the third in a series expected to herald a manned trip by as early as 2003, industry sources said Friday.
"Shenzhou III (Divine Vessel III) is likely to be launched next month from the Jiuquan Space Center" in northwest China's Gansu province, said Chen Lan, an independent Chinese space analyst who runs the "Go Taikonauts" website.
Chen, who monitors the highly secretive space program and has accurately forecast previous launches, said a successful Shenzhou III mission could pave the way for China's first manned flight by 2003.
China, which hopes to become the third nation after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a human in space, has set ambitions space goals and hopes to put an astronaut on the moon and build a space station within the next 15 years.
Nonetheless, unlike the fanfare associated with launches in other countries, China is highly guarded about specific missions and other details.
Shenzhou III, launched on a Long March 2F carrier rocket, would be aimed at improving the quality of the program's life support and re-entry systems, Chen said.
Officials at the China Aerospace Science and Technological Consortium refused to comment. However, Friday's China Daily quoted an unnamed senior official as saying a manned space flight would occur before 2005.
China's initial manned flight would most likely carry two astronauts, Chen said.
The first unmanned test flight of the Shenzhou program was in November 1999, when the Shenzhou I orbited the earth 14 times in a 12-hour flight aimed mainly at testing launch and re-entry capabilities.
The Shenzhou II, launched on January 9 this year, orbited the earth 108 times and tested life support systems before returning nearly a week later to a press blackout that left Western analysts suspecting a re-entry failure.
Chinese officials, however, denied such reports, albeit vaguely.
Shenzhou II carried another orbiting craft which transmitted data for around 260 days before burning up in the earth's atmosphere.
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China Gears Up For Shenzhou-3 Launch In Coming Months
Beijing - Nov 4, 2001
News of prelaunch activities of Shenzhou-3 (SZ-3) surfaced again in recent weeks while a Chinese space official reiterated the national pursuit of manned spaceflight.
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