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China Launches Rocket Carrying Jade Rabbit Rover to Explore Moon

China launched a rocket carrying an unmanned lunar rover, moving the country one step closer to becoming the third to land a spacecraft on the moon.

The Long March 3B rocket took off from the Xichang satellite launch center in southwest China at 1:30 a.m. today, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said on its website. It was carrying a rover dubbed Jade Rabbit that will survey the moon’s geology and natural resources.

The lander mission, which comes 47 years after the Soviet Union performed a soft landing of its Luna 9 spacecraft on the moon, is part of a broader Chinese investment in space. China conducted its first manned docking mission in June, 2012 and is considering a manned moon landing in the future.

China’s next step -- what it calls the third phase of its moon program -- will be to land a lunar rover and return it to Earth, a feat it hopes to achieve in 2017, according to Xinhua. Other space agencies including the European Union’s and India’s have crash-landed spacecraft on the moon.

“China’s space exploration will not stop at the moon,” said Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief in charge of the second phase of China’s lunar program, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “Our target is deep space.”

Chinese state media describe the space program as an element of the “Chinese Dream,” a slogan unveiled by President Xi Jinping that signifies a stronger military and improved livelihoods.

“We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” Xinhua quoted Zhang Zhenzhong, director of the launch center where the rocket blasted off, as saying.

China Central Television, the nation’s state broadcaster, ran a special program on the launch this morning. The moon probe’s Chinese name -- Chang’e-3 -- was one of the most popular search terms on China’s Sina Weibo microblogging service today.

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