China has launched its Chang'e-3 lunar probe aiming to become the third nation in the history to achieve soft lunar landing

Asian space race intensifies as China launches lunar lander

China has launched its first spacecraft bound for the Moon, while space-race rivals India has announced its Mars-bound spacecraft has reached a critical milestone.

The Long March-3B rocket blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China's southwestern Sichuan province at 1:30am local time (5:30pm GMT), carrying the Chang'e-3 lunar probe and China’s first extra-terrestrial rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, named after a figure from Chinese mythology.

Landing, is scheduled for mid-December, after which the rover will survey lunar geology and search for natural resources. The orbiter should eventually return to Earth.

"The probe has already entered the designated orbit," Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted Zhang Zhenzhong, director of the launch centre, as saying. "I now announce the launch was successful."

"We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation," he added.

The launch, aired on the Chinese state television, represents a major milestone in China’s space programme. Having already established itself as an important player on the world’s space scene, China concluded a 15-day manned mission to a station in low Earth orbit in June and has made plans to land people on the Moon by 2020.

In 2007, China launched its first lunar orbiter, the Chang'e-1 – named after a lunar goddess – which took images of the surface and analysed distribution of elements.

Beijing insists its space programme is for peaceful purposes, but the US Department of Defense has made clear it wants to prevent China's increasing space capabilities giving it any strategic advantage.

China says it will share the technological achievements of its manned space programme with other nations, especially developing ones, and will offer to train astronauts from other countries.

Earlier on Sunday, China's greatest rival India said its Mars-bound Mangalyaan spacecraft has reached a critical milestone leaving Earth’s orbit. An earlier Chinese mission to Mars failed at this stage in 2011. 

If India's Martian mission is successful, India will join a small club of nations including the US, Europe, and Russia, whose probes have orbited or landed on Mars.

India's mission showcases the country's cheap technology, encouraging hopes it could capture more of the $304-billion global space market, which includes launching satellites for other countries, analysts say.

With a price tag of 4.5 billion rupees (£44m),  the mission cost a little over a tenth of the cost of Nasa's Maven mission, which launched to Mars on 18 November.

India kicked off its space programme 50 years ago and developed it rapidly after Western powers levied sanctions over a 1974 nuclear weapons test, driving the country's scientists to develop their own rocket technology.

Five years ago, India's Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the Moon.

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