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China lays out its plan for Mars

Chinese space officials have come up with a plan that would send an orbiter toward Mars on a Chinese rocket as early as 2013, the Xinhua news agency reports. Such a mission would use technologies that were developed for the Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter and its recently launched follow-up mission, Chang'e 2.

The orbiter mission also would follow up on China's joint effort with Russia to send probes toward Mars and one of its moons, Phobos. Launch of the Phobos-Grunt mission is scheduled for a year from now. China's Yinghuo 1 ("Firefly") orbiter would hitch a ride on a Russian-built spacecraft that's designed to put a lander on Phobos and return a soil sample to Earth.

All this activity signals that Beijing will be taking its status as a space power seriously in the years ahead. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has just returned from a controversial visit to China, and today he said in a written statement that the visit "increased mutual understanding on the issue of human spaceflight and space exploration, which can form the basis for further dialogue and cooperation in a manner that is consistent with the national interests of both of our countries."