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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
China launches first Moon orbiter
China's Moon module taking off from Xichang
China is in an undeclared space race with its Asian rivals

China has launched its first lunar orbiter, on a planned year-long exploration mission to the Moon.

The satellite, named Chang'e I, took off from the Xichang Centre in south-west China's Sichuan province at 1800 local time (1000 GMT).

Analysts say it is a key step towards China's aim of putting a man on the Moon by 2020, in the latest stage of an Asian space race with Japan and India

Earlier this month, a Japanese lunar probe entered orbit around the Moon.

India is planning a lunar mission for April next year.

Gathering pace

State TV broadcast the launch of the unmanned Chang'e I, named after a Chinese goddess who flew to the Moon.

China map

"The operation is normal," voices in the control room were heard to say shortly after the launch.

Thousands of people living within 2.5km (1.6 miles) of the site and under the flight trajectory had been evacuated as standard procedure, officials at the Xichang Centre said.

The satellite is expected to enter lunar orbit in early November and start sending back pictures of the Moon's surface later that month.

Efforts by Asian nations to advance their space programmes have gathered pace in recent years.

In 2003, China became the first Asian nation to use its own rocket to put an astronaut in space.

Four years later, Beijing triggered international concern by destroying a weather satellite as part of a weapons test.

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