China launched an experimental spacecraft to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country’s first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface.
The eight-day program is a test run for a 2017 mission that aims to have a Chinese spacecraft land on the moon, retrieve samples and return to Earth. That would make China the third country after the United States and Russia to have carried out such a mission.
China’s lunar exploration program, named Chang’e after a mythical goddess, has already launched a pair of orbiting lunar probes and last year landed a craft on the moon with a rover on board. None of those missions were programmed to return to Earth.
China is also developing the Long March 5 heavier-lift rocket needed to launch a more permanent space station to be called Tiangong 2.