China on Monday launched a lunar probe carrying an exploration rover in what is expected to be the nation's first soft-landing on an extraterrestrial body.
The Chang'e-3 spacecraft carries a lander, as well as a rover named "Yutu," which means Jade Rabbit, according to the Xinhua News Agency, China's official news service.
The probe is scheduled to land on the moon in mid-December, Xinhua quoted Wu Zhijian, spokesman with China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, as saying.
The spacecraft lifted off early Monday on top of an enhanced Long March-3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China.
The probe's soft landing on the lunar surface is expected to be the most difficult part of the mission, Xinhua reported Wu Weiren, the lunar program's chief designer, saying. "This will be a breakthrough for China to realize zero-distance observation and survey on the moon," Weiren added. A "soft" landing is a safe landing where the spacecraft isn't damaged.
If China's moon mission succeeds, it will be the third nation, after the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, that landed on the moon.
Xinhua also said China is planning moon missions carrying astronauts, but the agency had no further information on the country's space exploration roadmap.
Early in September, NASA launched a lunar orbiter called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory.
After completing NASA's first test of a high-data-rate laser communication system in space, the spacecraft entered into orbit around the moon last month and began studying its atmosphere.
NASA already has a history of operating robotic rovers on extraterrestrial bodies.
The U.S. space agency, for instance, has operated rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Of the the first rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - on Mars, only Opportunity is still working. The rover Spirit was abandoned after becoming stuck in the dirt.
Curiosity, the newest and most advanced rover on Mars with 10 scientific instruments and 17 cameras, found evidence of ancient water flows as well as water in the Martian soil.
NASA also is readying its next Mars rover. Expected to launch in 2020, the new rover will be tasked with searching for signs of past life, as well as collecting rocks and soil samples that future missions could potentially send back to Earth. It also will test new technology that future human missions to Mars might be able to use.
This article, With look ahead to manned mission, China launches lunar rover, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.