- China launched an unmanned lunar probe Monday
- Chang'e-3 will release a solar-powered rover on the moon's surface
- The probe may interfere with a NASA lunar dust study, U.S. scientist says
China launched its first lunar probe early Monday, which, if all goes well, will make it only the third nation -- after the United States and the Soviet Union -- to soft-land on the moon.
The launch of the unmanned probe took place at 1:30 a.m. Monday (12:30 p.m. ET Sunday), state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
The Chang'e-3 blasted off from a Long March 3B rocket in Sichuan province located in southwest China and is expected to land on the moon's surface in mid-December.
The new space effort comes just over a decade after the country first sent an astronaut into space.
Unlike the soft-landing of the U.S. and the Soviet Union's unmanned spacecraft, Chang'e-3 will be able to survey the landscape first and determine the safest spot.
Researchers say an impact crater named Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows, is its likely destination. In 2010, China's previous lunar mission captured images of the crater while scouting potential landing sites for the 2013 probe.
On landing, the spacecraft will release Jade Rabbit (called Yutu in Chinese) -- a six-wheeled lunar rover equipped with four cameras and two mechanical legs that can dig up soil samples, a designer for the rover told Xinhua last month. A public poll determined the the solar-powered robot's name, which comes from the white pet rabbit of the Chinese moon godess Chang'e. The slow-moving rover will patrol the moon's surface for at least three months, according to Xinhua.
In the United States, scientists are concerned the Chinese mission could interfere with a NASA study of the moon's dust environment. Chang'e-3's descent is likely to create a noticeable plume on the moon's surface that could skew the results of research already being carried out by NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), Jeff Plescia, chair of NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group told Space.com, a space news site.