London, February 3 (ANI): Experts have determine that the decision by the Obama administration to scrap NASA's plans to return to the moon leave China well placed to become the second nation to land humans on the lunar surface within a decade.
According to a report in The Guardian, the US president's budget proposal lacked the funds to sustain NASA's 81 billion Constellation programme, the spaceships and rockets designed to put humans back on the moon by 2020.
So, the decision to scrap NASA's plans for a permanent return has left the door open for other countries.
China has lifted astronauts into orbit and sent its first robotic missions to the moon.
India found water on the surface with its first lunar mission last year, and plans to launch astronauts into Earth orbit in 2016.
Japan, too, has sent a satellite to the moon, returning extraordinary HDTV video of the surface.
With the US space agency out of the running, the leading contender for a return to the moon is China.
"The moon is an obvious target for China and they could be there in 2020," said Ken Pounds, professor of space science at Leicester University, UK.
In 2004, government officials announced an unmanned lunar exploration programme that would put satellites in lunar orbit, touch down on the surface and finally bring home up to two kilograms of rock samples before 2020.
The second probe in the programme is expected to launch in October this year.
It will scan the surface of the moon from an altitude of 60 miles and look for suitable landing sites for future missions.
The Chinese human spaceflight programme has progressed at speed on 2 billion dollars a year, roughly one tenth of the budget Nasa receives.
After only four unmanned test flights, the first Chinese astronaut flew in Earth orbit in 2003.
Five years later, China became only the third country to complete a spacewalk, paving the way for work on a space station.
Since then, the Chinese space programme has grown to include plans to launch three space stations between 2011 and 2015 and, if funding permits, to send a crewed mission to the moon, perhaps as early as 2022.
Development of the first Chinese lunar rover is under way and it is scheduled to launch on a three-month mission to the lunar equator in 2013.
Experts are waiting to see how the Chinese space agency reacts to Obama's plans for NASA. (ANI)