BEIJING — China launched an experimental spacecraft on Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface.
The eight-day program is a test run for a 2017 mission that aims to have a Chinese spacecraft land on the moon, retrieve samples and return to Earth. That would make China only the third country after the United States and Russia to have carried out such a mission.
The spacecraft lifted off from the southwestern Xichang satellite launch center early in the morning, separated from its carrier rocket and entered its planned orbit shortly afterward, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
China's lunar exploration program, named Chang'e after a mythical goddess, has already launched a pair of orbiting lunar probes and last year landed a craft on the moon with a rover onboard. None of those missions was programmed to return to Earth.
China has also hinted at a possible crewed mission to the moon at a future date if officials decide to combine the human spaceflight and lunar exploration programs. Xinhua said the latest mission will "obtain experimental data and validate re-entry technologies such as guidance, navigation and control, heat shield and trajectory design" for the future moon lander, christened Chang'e 5.