Space officials in China are eying April of next year for the launch of their first lunar orbiter--Chang'e-I.

The probe has been under development since early 2006 and makes use of China's Dongfanghong III satellite platform and other technology. The lunar orbiter will be tested at the space launch center in December. If checkout goes well, the spacecraft is to be launched in April atop a Long March 3A booster.

According to the Wuhan-based Changjiang Daily, quoting Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration, funding for Chang'e-I is 1.4 billion yuan - equal to $169 million in U.S. dollars.

One of Chang'e-I's tasks is to obtain three-dimensional images of the lunar surface. The moon orbiter, Luan said, is part of a three-step lunar program during a lecture at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province.

Following the Chang'e-I orbiter mission, Luan said, is landing an unmanned vehicle on the moon by 2010 and collecting samples of lunar soil with an unmanned vehicle by 2020.

"Only after we finish the three phases can we carry out the manned satellite project to probe the moon", Luan stated.