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; 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 deep space program 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.