- Associated Press - Friday, October 1, 2010

BEIJING (AP) - China launched an unmanned lunar probe on Friday, the latest milestone for an ambitious space program that aims to put a man on the moon later this decade.

The Chang’e II was shot into space Friday evening aboard a Long March 3C rocket from the launch site in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, according to footage aired by state broadcaster China Central Television.

The probe plans to test technology in preparation for an unmanned moon landing in 2012, with a possible manned lunar mission to follow in 2017.

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, most recently in 2008 featuring the program’s first-ever space walk.

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.

The Xinhua News Agency said Chang’e II would circle 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the moon before moving into an elliptical orbit just 9 miles (15 kilometers) above its surface.

It will film the anticipated landing site for the Chang’e III probe with its super-high resolution camera before returning to its higher orbit and carrying out an analysis of the lunar surface and surrounding space environment.

After its six-month mission, Chang’e II will either land on the moon as an experiment for future probes, fly further into outer space, or change its course and begin orbiting the Earth, Xinhua cited chief designer Huang Jiangchuan as saying.

The decision will be based on how well the satellite performs during its original mission and its condition when it is over, Huang was cited as saying.

The Chang’e (pronounced chahng-uh) probes are named after a legendary Chinese moon goddess.

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