(Source: AP)
Today's launch marks a major milestone for the Chinese space program

China today successfully launched its first lunar probe, a big first step in the country's three-step space program that hopes to put an astronaut on the moon by 2020. 

The Chang'e 1 orbiter, named after a mythical Chinese goddess who lives on the moon, launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 6:05 p.m. local time with a large trail of smoke.  Several thousand tourists and space officials watched as the 5,070-pound probe was sent into space aboard a Long March 3A carrier rocket.

Today's launch "marks another milestone in China's aerospace program after man-made satellites and manned space flights," said Zeng Peiyan, Chinese vice-premier.

China is the third country to launch its own astronaut into space, behind only the United States and Russia, and has plans to possibly build its own space platform as part of its multi-step plan to get taikonauts on the moon.

Chang'e 1 is expected to be in orbit around the moon for one year, offering Chinese researchers satellite images of the moon and other data that will be crucial for the country to launch a space vehicle and astronaut to the moon.  The first round of satellite images should be sent back to researchers sometime in late November.

Chang'e 1's launch comes several weeks after the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched  the Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE), the largest lunar mission since the NASA Apollo mission.  JAXA officials recently said the probe was in a correct position over the moon and is ready to begin its project to analyze and map the surface of the moon.  The growing Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is currently working on a lunar mission it hopes to launch sometime next spring.

Even though the launch is a great success for China, the United States is concerned about the possible militarization of space, especially after China destroyed an aging satellite with a land-based anti-satellite missile.  According to a government official, China wants to become part of the international space station project with more than a dozen other participating nations, but the United States is reluctant to let the Communist nation participate.  China has said numerous times it does not want to create an arms race in space.

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