SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China is testing the ability for future astronauts to stay on the moon for extended periods, as Beijing accelerates its space program and looks to put people on the surface of the moon within the next two decades.
The official Xinhua news agency said volunteers would live in a "simulated space cabin" for between 60-200 days over the next year helping scientists understand what will be needed for humans to "remain on the moon in the medium and long terms".
Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for China to become a global power in space exploration, with plans to send a probe to the dark side of the moon by 2018, the first ever such trip, and to put astronauts on the moon by 2036.
"While it remains unclear exactly how long China's first lunar explorers will spend on the surface, the country is already planning for longer stays," Xinhua said.
Two groups of four volunteers will live in the simulated cabin "Yuegong-1" to test how a life-support system works in a moon-like environment. A similar 105-day trial was carried out successfully in 2014.
The system, called the Bioregenerative Life Support System (BLSS), allows water and food to be recycled and is key to any Chinese probes to the moon or beyond.
"The latest test is vital to the future of China's moon and Mars missions and must be relied upon to guarantee the safety and health of our astronauts," Liu Zhiheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the news agency.
The Yuegong-1 cabin has a central living space the size of a "very small urban apartment" and two "greenhouses" for plants.
In March, China announced plans to launch a space probe to bring back samples from the moon this year, while the country's first cargo space craft docked with an orbiting space lab in April, a major step as Beijing looks to establish a permanently manned space station by 2022.
Despite the advances in China's space program for military, commercial and scientific purposes, China still lags behind the United States and Russia.
(Reporting by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Michael Perry)