China is set to launch a Martian lander as early as 2013, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Ye Peijian, chief scientist of deep space exploration at the China Academy of Space Technology said that the probe would likely be launched in November 2013 when Mars and Earth are at their closest to one another. Failing that, he said, it would launch in 2016.
"Mars is the first choice for mankind's interplanetary explorations as it is the closest Earth-like planet to Earth and could have life and be turned into a habitable place," he said.
The probe will require more sophisticated technologies than anything China has previously developed, he said, including the intelligence to detect faults and correct them by itself.
A signal from Mars to Earth would take 20 minutes to arrive. "Mars is so far away from us - from 55 million km to 400 million km depending on its orbit - and signals need a longer time to transmit. Relying on commands from Earth will be impossible," he said.
China is already constructing a monitoring network for deep space, consisting of large-caliber antennas and communication facilities.
China is already planning a Mars explorer, Yinghuo-1, due to be launched from a Russian rocket this November to examine Mars' magnetic fields.