China launched a rocket carrying a buggy-like vehicle that is expected to roam and explore the moon's surface for three months.
The Long March rocket lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province at 1:30 a.m. today, Beijing time (12:30 p.m. EST Sunday), the official Xinhua news agency reported.
If all goes as planned, a landing vehicle and the roving vehicle will reach the moon's surface in about two weeks. It will be the first time anyone has done a soft landing on the moon since 1976, when the Soviet Union landed its Luna 24 probe.
The unmanned rover is a gold-colored vehicle that looks like a dune buggy. It is expected to conduct various scientific experiments such as planting a telescope on the moon's surface and exploring under the surface of the moon, as well as transmitting photographs back to Earth.
The real purpose, aerospace experts believe, is to practice the techniques to eventually put a human on the moon.
"It comes at a time when America is dithering. Russia has lost the plot a bit. China sees the possibility of leading," said David Whitehouse, a British astrophysicist who has written a book about the moon. "It will upset the Americans because the Americans think they own the moon."
For domestic audiences, the propaganda value is huge and Chinese media are playing it to the hilt. Even the name of the rover, Jade Rabbit, was selected by a public poll. The name refers to the pet rabbit of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang'e -- which is the name of the landing vehicle as well. Two previous Chang'e missions orbited the moon in 2007 and 2010.
The rocket launch was broadcast live on Chinese television, although viewership was reduced by the early-morning timing.
"The timing is dictated more by physics than by propaganda," said Morris Jones, an Australian space analyst. He said that while the launch itself was relatively uncomplicated, as is the task of getting into orbit around the moon -- something China has already done twice -- the landing could be more difficult.
"Landing on the moon is far trickier than simply going into orbit. There is no margin for error," he said.
China's state news service described the mission as the "most complicated and difficult task in China's space exploration."
"More than 80 percent of the technologies adopted in the mission are new," Wu Zhijian, spokesman with State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, told the news service last week.
Only the United States and the Soviet Union have successfully landed on the moon. The U.S. is the only nation to land people on the moon.
Moon exploration enthusiasts are eagerly waiting to learn what the Chinese mission will uncover.
Since the burst of moon exploration in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the 1969 landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the moon's appeal has waned in favor of the planets and asteroids.
In 2010, President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation program, which was supposed to return Americans to the moon by 2020.