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BEIJING (USA TODAY) - China successfully launched a lunar probe into space Monday morning, on a two-week journey to deliver a robotic rover to the surface of the moon. The mission marks China's first attempt at soft-landing a spacecraft on an extra-terrestrial body, and could benefit future plans to land Chinese astronauts on the moon.

A Long March rocket carrying the Chang'e 3 lunar lander blasted off Monday at 1:30 a.m. from southwest China's Xichang Satellite Launch Center, reported the official Xinhua News Agency.

"We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,'' said the center's director Zhang Zhenzhong. China's ruling Communist Party has used the military-backed, state-run space program to boost national pride and support for its policies.

By mid-December, Chang'e 3 aims to land on the moon's Bay of Rainbows, and unleash the six-wheeled, solar-powered Yutu, or "Jade Rabbit," lunar rover to look for natural resources and conduct geological surveys for three months. China hopes to become the third nation, after the USA and the former Soviet Union, to achieve a difficult "soft landing" on the moon, whereby the spacecraft and equipment remain intact. An earlier Chinese orbiter made an intentional crash-landing on the moon.

The spacecraft, bearing China's red, five-starred flag, will become the first to visit the moon since the last Soviet unmanned mission there in 1976. One new feature is a ground-penetrating radar to measure the lunar soil and crust. The mission represents the second stage of China's slow but steady lunar program. In phase three, China will send another robotic probe to gather lunar samples, possibly by 2020. A manned mission could then follow.

While China's space achievements appear to imitate those of the USA and Soviet Union in decades past, they stir considerable pride and nationalism within China, whose government stresses its use of indigenous technology, and peaceful aims in space. Live TV broadcasts showed excited scenes at the launch center, where a reporter from the national broadcaster CCTV embraced one delighted designer.

Some viewers who stayed up to watch later went online to celebrate.

"The scientists are so great," wrote an "inspired and proud" Wang Wei on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like micro-blog platform. "Of course there's still a definite gap from America sending humans to the moon, but this is already amazing," wrote Wang, an economics professor in east China's Shandong province.

Other Internet users said the launch was even more stunning than the space movie Gravity, currently no.1 at China's box office. Legend and literature abound in China's real space program, where the space station that saves the day in Gravity is called the Heavenly Palace, lunar spacecraft are named after moon goddess Chang'e, and the lunar rover is named after her pet rabbit.

While China's citizens cannot choose their leaders, they were able to participate in an Internet poll that chose the "Jade Rabbit" name. Chinese poets and folklore artists down the centuries have depicted a white rabbit pounding a mortar and pestle to create an elixir of immortality.

The secret of eternal life may remain elusive, but Chinese scientists are hopeful the moon may offer up other treasures such as rare metals and Helium-3, a potential fusion energy source. China's ultimate aim is to use the moon as a "springboard" for deep space exploration, said Luan Enjie, a senior adviser to China's lunar program, in the China Daily newspaper.

The USA should overcome its objections and cooperate with China in space, wrote Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, on the website Space.com in October.

"America, already on the decline after the retirement of the space shuttle (now only Russia and China can launch astronauts into space), will on the way down hand over the leadership position of human spaceflight to the Chinese," he said. Partnering with China "could be a win-win-win for all", but "certain members of the U.S. Congress are dedicated to keeping China out, dooming the United States to continue its decline in human spaceflight," Chiao wrote.

Contributing: Sunny Yang

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