Last week, Chinese officials announced a plan to send an orbiter toward Mars on a rocket, launching as early as 2013. Their plan, incorporating research conducted by the China Academy of Space Technology, will also use the technologies originally developed for the country's first lunar satellite, which launched in 2007. So what are the implications of the recent announcement?

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."

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