The rapidly ascending Chinese space program is setting its sights on a new target: Mars.

China plans to send an orbiter to the Red Planet on a Russian launch vehicle later this year, according to the Xinhua News Agency. The nation's first Mars probe, Yinghuo 1, will piggyback on the ambitious Phobos–Grunt mission, a Russian spacecraft that will seek to return soil samples from Phobos, the larger of Mars's two tiny moons.

Details on the orbiter's cost and scientific goals are scarce, with a Shanghai Aeronautic Bureau official telling the news agency: "(The major task) is to orbit and explore Mars and test data of Mars' atmosphere and surrounding environment. This is to create a better platform for future space exploration." A 2007 Xinhua report described a small probe: just 2.5 feet (75 centimeters) long and weighing 240 pounds (110 kilograms).

The China National Space Administration became the third space program to successfully launch astronauts into orbit in 2003, then followed up with the country's first spacewalk last year. China successfully sent a probe to orbit the moon, dubbed Chang'e 1, in 2007.

Photo of Mars: NASA