China launched its second lunar exploration probe on Friday, boosting the country's efforts to rise as a major space power eventually capable of landing a man on the moon.
The Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter blasted off from a remote corner of the southwestern province of Sichuan a few seconds before 7 p.m. (7 a.m. ET), state media said, on the same day the country celebrated 61 years since the founding of Communist China.
The Chang'e 2 is expected to fly as close as 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) above the moon, testing skills and technology intended to pave the way for an unmanned landing planned in about 2013.
It will take high-resolution photos of the moon's Bay of Rainbows, where engineers plan to land Chang'e 3, the official China Daily said.
China is jostling with neighbors Japan and India for a bigger presence in outer space, but its plans have faced international scrutiny. Fears of a space arms race with the United States and other powers have mounted since China blew up one of its own weather satellites with a ground-based missile in January 2007.
The Chang'e is named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon. A successful Chang'e 2 mission would mark another advance in China's plan to establish itself as a space power in the same league as the United States and Russia.
Chief designer Huang Jiangchuan told Xinhua news agency before the launch that Chang'e-2 may be given an extra mission — flying into outer space to "test China's capability to probe further into space." He did not elaborate.
The probe could test technology in preparation for an unmanned moon landing, with a possible manned lunar mission to follow.
China's other space plans include the launch of the first module of a future space station next year followed by the dispatch of manned spacecraft to dock with it.
China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to put humans into orbit. Two additional manned missions followed, with the most recent one in 2008 featuring the program's first-ever spacewalk.
The Chinese space program is marking new milestones even as those in the U.S. and elsewhere face tight budgets, although its close links to the military have limited cooperation with other nations — including the International Space Station.
China launched its first moon orbiter, the Chang'e 1, in October 2007, accompanied by a blaze of patriotic propaganda celebrating the country's technological prowess. It was intentionally crashed onto the lunar surface 16 months later to remove it from space and monitor the results of its demise.