BEIJING — China's first lunar probe streaked into an overcast sky Wednesday, joining a race to the moon that's swept up three Asian powers and posed a serious challenge to NASA five decades after the first space race began.
A Long March 3-A rocket carrying the probe blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 6:05 p.m. local time. If all goes as planned, the probe, named Chang'e I after a moon-dwelling goddess, will beam back its first images of the moon in the second half of November.
It isn't alone: A Japanese probe began orbiting the moon last month. India plans its own lunar explorer next April.
Fifty years after the first space race pitted the Soviet Union against the United States, the three Asian nations are locked in their own space race of sorts. The competition isn't only about scientific achievement; it's also about regional dominance.
"Technology is being used to convince other countries in the region of who is the regional leader," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.
China and Japan have informally stated a goal of putting a human on the moon within 15 or 20 years, and India has manned space plans of its own.
China already has launched astronauts into Earth orbit twice — in 2003 and 2005 — and it sees its program into deep space as a symbol of its growing international status.
In a sign of its new confidence, China permitted live television coverage of the launch.
About an hour afterward, Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan showed up at the Beijing aerospace command and control center and said the launch "solidifies China's space technology and its international prestige in this field."
China plans to follow the probe with an unmanned lunar rover in 2012 and an explorer that can bring back moon samples by 2017.
Some Chinese scientists downplay the rivalry with Japan, with which Beijing jostles for influence, and India, a neighboring nuclear power.
"I don't think there's competition among us. Of course, like Europe and the United States, we all have the desire to be the first in scientific research," said Huang Hai, the deputy dean of Beihang University's school of aeronautics.
Unlike India and China, which largely use indigenous technology, Japan is collaborating extensively with Western scientists. Japan launched its Kaguya lunar probe Sept. 14, and a main satellite and two baby satellites entered lunar orbit Oct. 4. Japan says it's the largest lunar mission since the U.S. Apollo programs of the late 1960s and early '70s.
India leads China in satellite and remote-sensing technology, but hasn't invested in manned spaceflight and probably won't attempt to send an astronaut into orbit for another eight years.
"In many areas, they are about equal," Johnson-Freese said. "China has more advanced launching capabilities but India has strengths in other areas."
China's space activity, which included knocking an aged weather satellite out of the sky last January, has caused some indigestion in Washington. In a speech marking NASA's 50th anniversary, Administrator Michael Griffin said Sept. 17 that he expected China to get to the moon before U.S. astronauts returned there after making six landings from 1969 to 1972.
"I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are. I think when that happens, Americans will not like it," Griffin said.
As it passes over the moon, the Chang'e I probe will map 14 kinds of minerals in the lunar soil. China has promoted its lunar program as a way to stake a claim on lunar mineral deposits, including helium-3, a nonradioactive gas that's embedded within lunar dust. Helium-3, which is rare on Earth, is thought to be a potential source of nuclear fuel.
"There could be a huge demand for an element that is in rich supply on the moon. We must find out how much there is and where it can be found," Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist for the lunar program, told state television. "It's likely that someday humans will utilize the moon's resources."
Smaller Asian countries also have been celebrating achievements in space.
A 35-year-old Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, returned to Earth on Sunday after 11 days aboard the International Space Station. "I got a chance to see Malaysia from space, and it was the most beautiful thing I've seen in my life," he said after touching down in Kazakhstan.
CHINA'S LUNAR MISSION
Name of mission: The probe is named after Chang'e, a goddess who legend says ascended to the moon, where she dwells with a white rabbit.
Mission duration: Relay the first picture from the moon in late November. Keep orbiting for one year.
Objective: Obtain 3-D pictures of lunar surface, map distribution of useful elements on the moon surface such as helium-3, a potential source of energy.
Weight of probe: 5,170 pounds, less than a normal-sized elephant.
Payload: 286 pounds.
Instruments aboard: Stereo camera, imager, laser altimeter, microwave detector, solar particle detector, interferometer, gamma/X-ray spectrometers.
TIMELINE OF CHINA'S SPACE PROGRAM
April 1970 — China launches its first satellite.
November 1999 — Shenzhou 1, with a dummy astronaut aboard, orbits Earth 14 times.
October 2003 — Shenzhou V carries astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit for 21.5 hours, and China follows Russia and the U.S. into the era of manned spaceflight.
Oct. 12, 2005 — Shenzhou VI zooms two astronauts into space on a five-day flight.
2010 — China plans to set up a space laboratory, undertake a space walk.
2012 — Date to send an unmanned rover to the moon's surface.
2017 — Send another rover to bring back soil and rock samples from the moon.
2020 — China has implied that it may attempt to land an astronaut on the moon's surface.
Sources: China Daily, 21st Century.