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China launches Jade Rabbit rover mission to the moon

China has launched its first ever lunar rover mission into space, the latest in its ambitious space program. The robot, known as Jade Rabbit, is set to land on the moon in mid-December.

The Chang'e-3 rocket carrying the Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” robot blasted off at 1:30 a.m. (1730 GMT) from Xichang launch base in western China on Sunday.

The probe is due to land on the moon on December 14. If the landing proves successful, China will be the first nation to accomplish a lunar landing since Russia landed its Luna-24 there in 1976.

The highly anticipated launch was covered live by national radio and television outlets. The name of the rover was chosen by an online poll in which 3.4 million people participated.

Once on the moon, the six-wheeled Jade Rabbit will explore the lunar surface for at least 90 Earth days, collecting soil samples and searching for natural resources.

Designed by the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute, the Jade Rabbit can climb inclines of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200 meters (660 feet) per hour.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third country after Russia and the United States to achieve independent manned space travel.

hc/jr (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)