BEIJING - China launched its first ever extraterrestrial landing craft into orbit en route for the moon in the small hours of Monday, in a major milestone for its space program.
In 2007, China launched its first moon orbiter, the Chang'e-1 - named after a lunar goddess - which took images of the surface and analysed the distribution of elements.
The lunar buggy was named the Jade Rabbit in a public vote, a folkloric reference to the goddess' pet.
Chinese scientists have discussed the possibility of sending a human to the moon some time after 2020.
In China's latest manned space mission in June, three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory, part of Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020.
If the lunar mission is successful, China will become the third country, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, to soft-land on the moon.
But it is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers, whose moon landings date back more than four decades.
Beijing insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Department of Defense has made clear it wants to prevent China's increasing space capabilities giving it any strategic advantage.
China says it will share the technological achievements of its manned space program with other nations, especially developing ones, and will offer to train astronauts from other countries.