Source AP ©

Lunar probe operating normally, on planned trajectory, China government agency says

China's first lunar probe is operating normally and is on its planned trajectory more than one week after blasting off, a government agency said Thursday.

The launch of the Chang'e 1 satellite put in motion an ambitious 10-year space exploration plan for China. It is also the latest step in an Asian space race following the launch of a lunar probe earlier last month by Japan.

"All the systems on board are currently in excellent condition and the spacecraft is on the expected trajectory," the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said in a statement.

The satellite is being carried by a Long March 3A rocket that blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan on Oct. 24.

The Chang'e 1 satellite - named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon - is expected to transmit its first photo back to China in late November, and to conduct explorations of the moon for a year.

The lunar mission adds depth to a Chinese space program that has sent astronauts orbiting around the earth twice in the past four years and is a source of great national pride.

Although that boosted pride is one benefit of the space program, China is also looking for scientific and military payoffs.

The mission marks the first step of a three-stage moon program for China. In about 2012, there will be a moon landing with a moon rover. In the third phase about five years later, another rover will land on the moon and be returned to earth with lunar soil and stone samples.

The launch comes just weeks after China's regional rival Japan put a probe into orbit around the moon in a big leap forward for Asia's undeclared space race. India is likely to join the regional rivalry soon, with plans to send its own lunar probe into space in April.

China sent its first satellite into earth orbit in the 1970s but the space program only seriously took off in the 1980s, growing apace with the country's booming economy.

In 2003, China became only the third country in the world after the United States and Russia to put its own astronauts into space.

But China also alarmed the international community in January when it blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile.

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