China launched an experimental spacecraft to orbit the Moon and return to Earth Thursday (10/23/14) in preparation for its first lunar landing return mission in history.  The ‘Long March 3C’ rocket blasted off early in the morning from Xichang satellite launch center, arriving in low-Earth orbit shortly after.

The craft’s 8-day mission is designed to gather data and test reentry technologies, and to validate systems for the future lunar lander ‘Chang’e 5’ which will launch in 2017 on a mission to return lunar samples to Earth.  Chang’e 5’s soft touch-down on the Moon will make China the third country in the world to make lunar landfall, following the United States and Russia.

Chinese officials say a possible manned mission to the moon could be in the works for a future date as well.  China is also developing the ‘Long March 5’ heavier-lift rocket for the purpose of launching a more permanent space station into space known as the Tiangong 2.