China launched its first moon rover mission early Monday, state TV showed, the latest step in an ambitious space programme seen as a symbol of its rising global stature.
The Chang’e-3 rocket carrying the Jade Rabbit rover blasted off around 1:30 am (Sunday 1730 GMT) into the dark sky, the CCTV official broadcaster showed in live footage from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwest of the country.
The probe is due to land on the moon in mid-December to explore its surface and look for natural resources.
It is the world’s third lunar rover mission following those by the United States and former Soviet Union decades earlier.
China’s military-led space programme aims to establish a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send someone to the moon.
Since 2003 it has sent 10 astronauts into space and launched an orbiting space module, Tiangong-1. It also sent probes to orbit the moon in 2007 and 2010.
The rover’s name Jade Rabbit, or “Yutu”, was chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters.
It comes from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living on the moon as the pet of Chang’e, a lunar goddess who swallowed an immortality pill.
State television showed the rocket shooting into the sky, and mission observers could be heard reporting at regular intervals that things were proceeding “normally”.
The lunar probe held “great scientific and economic significance”, the Xinhua state news agency paraphrased Sun Zezhou, the chief designer of the lunar probe, as saying.
“The mission has contributed to the development of a number of space technologies and some of them can be applied in civilian sector,” it paraphrased Sun as saying.
The mission had gathered attention in recent days, with users of Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, vowing to stay up to watch the live coverage.
“The news on TV about Chang’e 3 has made me incredibly proud,” one commenter said ahead of the launch.
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