Huang said China also planned at least 15 rocket launches during the year, carrying 17 satellites into orbit, although he gave no further details.

 

China has denied any links between the Olympics, which starts on August 8, and the manned space mission, although both carry enormous propaganda potential for China's leaders.

 

China's space programme


1956 - Chairman Mao opens China's first rocket and missile research institute

1970China launches its first satellite using a modified intercontinental ballistic missile

1986 - China announces entry into commercial satellite launch business

1992 - China's communist leadership gives go-ahead to Project 921, the mission to put the first Chinese astronaut in space

1999 - First unmanned test flight of Shenzhou spacecraft

2003 - Shenzhou V carries China first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into orbit for 21 hours

2005 - Shenzhou VI blasts two astronauts into orbit on five-day mission

Critics have questioned China's eagerness to join the ranks of the global space powers while millions of the country rural poor still struggle to make a living.

 

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming only the third country capable of independent manned spaceflight after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

 

In October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft carried two astronauts on a five-day flight.

 

Last year, China's launched its Chang'e 1 moon probe about one month after Japan sent its own lunar orbiter into space, prompting speculation over a new space race in Asia.

 

India has said it plans to launch a lunar probe in April.

 

Fears of potential military rivalry in space with the US have increased since China blew up one of its own weather satellites using a ground-based missile in January last year.

Chinese officials however downplayed the issue saying Beijing wanted to use its space programme to co-operate with other countries, and hoped to join in building the international space station.

 

China also plans to mount a joint effort with Russia to explore Mars in 2009.