- Mission chief spoke to BBC about plans for Mars and moon missions
- The agency is planning to launch a mission top reach Mars by 2021
- It also plans to establish a lunar research base and explore the moon
- Nasa is banned from working with the Chinese, but officials have spoken of their desire to collaborate with the US agency on future projects
China has set its sights firmly on Mars and is aiming to launch a mission to the red planet by 2020, a top official has revealed.
Long-regarded as a secretive branch of the country's vast military, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has been considered something of a lone wolf in the increasingly cooperative space race.
But the chief designer of lunar and Mars missions for the CNSA has opened up about the agency's plans for planetary exploration and future collaboration in a rare interview.
In an interview with the BBC, Wu Weiren said the agency's short-term goal is to orbit and land on the moon as well as bring back lunar samples.
However, the agency's long-term goal is to explore and settle on the lunar surface, with manned missions staying longer on the surface and even establishing a research base.
The secretive agency has changed tack in recent years, releasing more data and images to the world, and publicising its successes.
Earlier this year a full set of images from the agency's lunar lander and rover – Chang'e 3 and Yutu or 'Jade Rabbit' – were made publicly available, providing some of the most detailed images of the lunar surface ever to have been released.
In addition to the lunar base, Mr Wu revealed that the Chinese want to venture to the little-explored far side of the moon. Although whether this exploration will relate to mining activities, in order to tap the moon's potential veins of uranium, titanium and minerals.
Previously, the agency has stated the importance of helium-3 to the future of its space programme, a radioactive isotope which may be abundant on the far side of the moon.
Mr Wu told the BBC: 'It's quite challenging to land there, but according to research, there might be water or ice because of the lack of sunlight.'
But the biggest surprise was the openness surrounding military-led agency's plans to visit Mars. According to the mission chief, the CNSA plans to set a course for the red planet in 2020.
However, he admitted that the agency could have started its Mars mission earlier, instead of flagging behind the US, European and Indian agencies.
Alluding to the stringent nature of national decision-making in China, he said 'finally the country has given its approval.'
'We will orbit Mars, land and deploy a rover – all in one mission,' Mr Wu confidently told the BBC.
Current and future planned missions are showing there are clear benefits to be gained from collaborative efforts in space exploration.
But while China may be seeking cooperative ventures, Nasa will not work with the CNSA due to its military status.
The US senate has frequently rejected calls for closer collaboration between the two agencies, with a 2011 agreement banning the US space agency from engaging in bilateral agreements with the Chinese, with vocal opponents in the US government referring to China as 'an evil empire'.
The European space agency has had limited collaborated with CNSA, working on a sun-focused satellite, called Double Star, which launched in 2001.
And the Chinese have already collaborated with the Russian agency Roscosmos on a failed Martian moon probe, which failed to make it out of low Earth orbit.
Commenting on the barriers ahead, Mr Wu said: 'We would like to cooperate with the US, especially for space and moon exploration. We would welcome this very much.'
He added: 'We have urged the US many times to get rid of restrictions, so scientists from both countries can work together on future exploration.'
To date, Nasa, Esa and Isro – the Indian space research organisation – have successfully sent probes and landers to Mars.
According to China Daily, CNSA plans to launch reach the red planet by the end of 2021.
A space scientist and political advisor Ye Peijian told the news outlet: 'There are many challenges in front of us...but I think it is likely we will send the probe to Mars given our all-out efforts, the know-how we gained from past missions and everybody's support.'
China is expected to reveal more details about its mission to Mars this week.