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Today, China launched a space mission and a very ambitious one at that. It's a lunar probe and it's supposed to pave the way for future moon landings.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that a number of Asian nations are competing in a new space race, and China is at the forefront.

ANTHONY KUHN: Once upon a time, the Chinese myth goes, a woman named Chang'e took an immortality pill then floated off to the moon where she became a goddess.

Unidentified Man #1: (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Today, the Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter blasted off from the Xichang launch base in western Sichuan province.


KUHN: The satellite is scheduled to enter lunar orbit on November 5th. It should start sending pictures and data back to Earth in a few months.

Unidentified Woman: (Chinese Spoken).

Unidentified Man #2: (Chinese Spoken).

Woman: (Chinese Spoken).

KUHN: Mission control scientists watched as the satellite jettisoned its rocket and opened its solar power panels. The satellite is carrying cameras to map the moon's surface. It's got spectrometers to analyze the moon's elemental makeup to try to better understand the moon's origins and evolution.

Sun Kwok is an astronomer at the University of Hong Kong. He's on a team of 120 Chinese scientists who will analyze the data that the probe sends back. He says this is China's most technologically advanced satellite launch to date.

SUN KWOK: This, for China, is sort of a big step because in the past all is, I think, approximately 70 satellites and so are all been Earth orbiting. So this lunar probe will be the first one that actually leaves the Earth orbit.

KUHN: The orbiter will pave the way for future missions in the next 10 to 15 years to land an unmanned rover on the moon and eventually, bring back samples from the moon's surface.

Kwok says he expects that China will eventually share the data from the lunar orbiter with the international scientific community.

KWOK: I think this Chang'e mission would be very much an importance step to have China to play a much larger role in the international space science community.

KUHN: Such cooperation with contrast with China's anti-satellite missile test in January, which triggered international criticism.

China's launch comes just weeks after Japan sent up a lunar probe. India has plans to launch one, too, in April. Analysts point out that all these nations see space programs as the ultimate expression of soft power.

DEAN CHENG: I do believe that we are looking at a space race in Asia.

Dean Cheng is an expert on China's space program at CNA, a Virginia-based think tank.

CHENG: I think all of these countries are competing to be Asia's leading space power. And in terms of sending missions to the moon, to Mars, manned missions eventually to the moon, one suspects that you're going to see a heating up of this race.

KUHN: If there's a debate in China about the cost of the Chang'e 1, you won't read about it in the state-controlled press.

All the same, Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist for the program, recently defended its cost. He said the mission's $187-million price tag is not much more than what it cost to build a mile of subway in Beijing.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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