XICHANG, Sichuan, Dec. 2 (Xinhua) -- China launched the Chang'e-3 lunar probe with itsfirst moon rover aboard early on Monday.
The lunar probe, aboard a Long March-3B carrier rocket, blasted off from the XichangSatellite Launch Center in southwest China at 1:30 a.m. Monday.
It is the first time for China to send a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of anextraterrestrial body.
Also, it is the first moon lander launched in the 21st century.
So far, only the United States and the former Soviet Union have soft-landed on the moon.
Chang'e-3 comprises a lander and a moon rover called "Yutu" (Jade Rabbit). The lunarprobe will land on the moon in mid-December if everything goes according to plan.
Old Chinese myth has it that, after swallowing magic pills, Chang'e took her pet "Yutu" andflew toward the moon, where she became a goddess, and has lived there with the whiterabbit ever since.
Chang'e-3's mission presents a modern scientific version of the myth. The lunar probecomprises a lander and a moon rover. The lunar probe will land on the moon in mid-December if everything goes according to plan.
Tasks for the moon rover include surveying the moon's geological structure and surfacesubstances, while looking for natural resources.
It will set up a telescope on the moon first time in human history, observe theplasmasphere over the Earth and survey the moon surface through radar.
Chang'e-3 is part of the second phase of China's lunar program, which includes orbiting,landing and returning to the Earth. It follows the success of the Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2missions in 2007 and 2010.
After orbiting for 494 days and intentionally crashing onto the lunar surface, Chang'e-1sent back 1.37 terabytes of data, producing China's first complete moon picture.
Launched on Oct. 1, 2010, Chang'e-2 verified some crucial technologies for Chang'e-3 andreconnoitered the landing area. It also made the world's first lunar holographic image witha resolution of 7 meters.
Currently Chang'e-2 is more than 60 million kilometers away from Earth and has becomeChina's first man-made asteroid. It is heading for deep space and is expected to travel asfar as 300 million km from the Earth, the longest voyage of any Chinese spacecraft.
China is likely to realize the third step of its lunar program in 2017, which is to land a lunarprobe on moon, release a moon rover and return the probe to the Earth.
Lunar probe mission is of great scientific and economic significance, said Sun Zezhou, chiefdesigner of the lunar probe.
The mission has contributed to the development of a number of space technologies andsome of them can be applied in civilian sector, he said.
The moon is also considered the first step to explore a further extraterrestrial body, suchas the Mars.
If successful, the mission will mean China has the ability of in-situ exploration on anextraterrestrial body, said Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief in charge of the secondphase of China's lunar program.
"China's space exploration will not stop at the moon," he said. "Our target is deep space."
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third country after Russiaand the United States to achieve independent manned space travel.
Despite fast progress of the lunar mission, China is still a newcomer in this field.
The former Soviet Union first landed its probe on the moon on Jan. 31, 1966, while theUnited States first sent human beings to the moon in 1969.
About a day before the launch of Chang'e-3, India's maiden Mars orbiter, namedMangalyaan, left the Earth early on Sunday for a 300-day journey to the Red Planet.
Chinese space scientists are looking forward to cooperation with other countries, includingthe country's close neighbor India.
Li Benzheng, deputy commander-in-chief of China's lunar program, told media earlier thatChina's space exploration does not aim at competition.
"We are open in our lunar program, and cooperation from other countries is welcome," hesaid. "We hope to explore and use space for more resources to promote humandevelopment."