China on Monday launched its Chang'e-3 lunar probe and rover aboard a "Long March" rocket ahead of a planned touch-down on the surface of the moon later this month, official media reported.
Official video of the countdown and launch showed the enhanced Long March-3B rocket blasting off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China at 1:30 a.m.
Announcing the successful launch, Xichang launch center director Zhang Zhenzhong said China's space program was part of the "Chinese dream" touted by President Xi Jinping.
"The probe has entered the designated orbit," Xinhua quoted Zhang as saying.
"We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation," he said.
China's accelerated space program comes as budget restraints and shifting priorities hold back U.S. manned space launches, and the Chang'e-3 probe blasted off just one day after India launched a mission to orbit Mars.
While Beijing insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, the U.S. Department of Defense has made clear it wants to prevent China's increasing space capabilities giving it any strategic advantage.
If the landing is successful, the Chang'e-3 probe will become the first Chinese spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body, after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The Chang'e-3 mission, which will carry out geological surveys and set up a telescope to observe the lunar surface and the Earth, will pave the way for a manned lunar orbit and manned lunar landing, Xinhua said.
However, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has yet to announce the timing of any manned lunar missions.
Chinese netizens were largely congratulatory of the move, with an official microblog account for the Chang'e-3 run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences drawing more than 260,000 followers by Monday.
Some comments were somewhat satirical, however.
"Are there chengguan on the moon?" asked user @maizixiaoxiao on the popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo, referring to the widely hated "urban management" enforcement officials who are frequently filmed beating up street hawkers.
"Say hi to [the moon goddess] for me," quipped @yueguanggouweibahua.
While user @jinshijinbiOK added: "This kind of propaganda is OK; it doesn't make you feel ill at all!"
And user @xiaoyamaxiaoxiaozuoya inquired of the Yutu rover on its official microblog account: "Have you submitted your application form to join the party?"
China's state-run newspapers, TV and web portals carried the launch as the top headline on Monday, but party-backed media appeared keen to play down potential strategic benefits to Beijing from its space program.
According to an editorial in the English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to party mouthpiece The People's Daily, China is not trying to engage in a "Cold War" lunar exploration contest.
"Chinese society should give more support to lunar exploration and other cutting-edge science activities," the paper said, warning that China, which has developed much of the technology needed for the lunar mission by itself, will fall behind if it can't keep pace in space.
However, in Hong Kong, the Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po hinted at broader aims, including natural resources for exploitation, behind the mission.
"The moon has become a focal point of competition for strategic resources among space powers," the paper said in an editorial on Monday.
"Faced with a grim situation, China can neither stand by and watch nor ignore this, and it must have lunar exploration capability to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests," it said.
Targeting deep space
The Chang'e-3 mission will mean China has the ability to carry out remote exploration of an extraterrestrial body, Xinhua quoted Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief in charge of the second phase of China's lunar program, as saying.
"China's space exploration will not stop at the moon," he said. "Our target is deep space."
China is looking to land the Chang'e probe on the moon and release the Yutu moon rover, before returning the probe to Earth in 2017, Xinhua said.
The launch came a day after neighbor and rival India launched its maiden Mars orbiter Mangalyaan on its 300-day voyage to Mars, although official media were keen to play down any suggestion of competition.
"Chinese space scientists are looking forward to cooperation with other countries, including the country's close neighbor India," Xinhua said.
The "Yutu," or Jade Rabbit, moon rover is named after the companion of moon goddess Chang'e.
In 2012, Beijing launched its fourth manned space mission since 2003, when Yang Liwei became the country's first person in orbit.