China expects to launch an unmanned spaceship by the end of this year, the fourth in a seriesthat could lead to its first manned space voyage, China Daily reported Wednesday.

“We have intensified development of the Shenzhou IV (Divine Vessel IV) and its carrier rocket, which we plan to launch sometime in the remaining months of this year,” Zhang Qingwei, president of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC) was quoted as saying.

On the precondition of amply ensuring the safety of its astronauts, China will stage its manned space flights, Zhang said.

Zhang did not give a timetable at a closed-door meeting of CASC Monday in Beijing. But he did say CASC, a leading participant in China’s space program, is heading for breakthroughs in technologies related to spaceship docking, space labs and deep-space exploration.

Following Shenzhou I and II, China successfully launched the unmanned Shenzhou III vessel atop a CASC Long March 2F rocket in March. The spacecraft returned after seven days circling the earth108 times.

The three consecutive successes of the Shenzhou series since 1999 have sparked widespread speculation that China, vowing to become the third nation in the world to put a human in space, will stage manned ships soon. (Xinhuanet)