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Chinese Officials Waffle on Space-Station Plans

China said its lunar probe had entered its final orbit around the moon Wednesday, but an official backed away from reports of launching a space station by 2020.

The probe — called Chang'e 1 after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon — made final adjustments at the end of a two-week journey and entered its final working orbit of 125 miles from the moon Wednesday where it will explore its surface for the next year.

The first photo of the moon should be sent back later this month, officials said. By early next year the probe will have measured the whole surface of the moon at least once, officials said.

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China attaches great prestige to its ambitious space program, seeing it as a way to validate its claims to being one of the world's leading scientific nations.

The country has sent astronauts into space twice in the past four years and launched its moon probe about a month after rival Japan.

In 2003, China became only the third country in the world after the United States and Russia to send a human into orbit.

But officials denied state media reports Wednesday that China was planning a space station by 2020.

"So far, according to the plans already published, there are no plans for a space station," Li Guoping, spokesman of the China National Space Administration, said at a news conference.

The China Daily newspaper, said China's planned space station would be "a small-scale, 20-ton space workshop," quoting Long Lehao, a leading designer of the Long March 3A rocket that carried the Chang'e 1 into space.

Chinese space officials have said previously they wanted to build a space station in the next 10 or 15 years, but the target date of 2020 was the first time a schedule has been made public, Long told China Daily.

The report did not say how many people the station would be able to hold. But its weight is about one-tenth that of the International Space Station, which currently has six people on board.

The probe's launch raised the prospect of a space rivalry between China and Japan, with India possibly joining in if it carries through on a plan to send its own lunar probe into space in April.

But Chinese officials have played down talk of a space race, saying Beijing wanted to use its program to work with other countries.

Li said China was willing to participate in the International Space station, joining the 16 countries involved.

China has not participated in the project in part because of U.S. unease about allowing a communist dictatorship a place aboard.