China launched its first moon orbiter on Wednesday accompanied by a blaze of live-to-air patriotic propaganda celebrating the country's space ambitions and technological prowess.
The Chang'e One orbiter lifted off from the southwestern province of Sichuan at 1005 GMT. Barring technical failure, it will spend more than a year scanning the lunar surface in preparation for an unmanned moon vehicle planned for 2012 and a manned landing in future decades.
Chinese television broadcast the take-off more or less live. Domestic news reports said unnamed senior leaders were at the launch site to witness the country's latest feat in space.
The broadcast described the blast-off as untroubled.
A torrent of state media reports have celebrated Chang'e One, named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon, as a display of the country's growing strength.
"Without a doubt, the launch of the Chang'e One will again show the world that Chinese people have the willpower, confidence and ability to constantly scale the heights of science and technology," said a commentator on the Sina Web site (news.sina.com.cn).
The patriotic upswell was echoed among thousands of space enthusiasts and tourists who crowded onto viewing platforms near the small city to view the launch, paying 800 to 1,000 yuan ($100-130) for the privilege.
"This is our first probe to the moon, and it will be a symbolic event," said one spectator, a woman surnamed Bian. "I feel this is very important for us".
Thousands of villagers in a 2.5-km (1.6-mile) radius of the site were moved before the Long March 3A rocket heaved the 2,300-kg (5,071-pound) orbiter skyward, the China News Service reported.
"This has important significance for China's space program development, in particular technologically," said Chan Kwing-lam, a Hong Kong-based expert in solar physics, who will study data sent back by the orbiter.
Chan said the feat would help China catch up technically with Japan, which launched its own orbiter last month.
Beijing's space plans have faced increasing international scrutiny. Fears of a potential space arms race with the United States and other powers have mounted since China blew up one of its own weather satellites using a ground-based missile in January.
Beijing has stressed that its intentions are peaceful.
"China will not be involved in a moon race with any other country and in any form", the chief commander of the orbiter project, Luan Enjie, told Xinhua news agency on Wednesday.
But officials have also left little doubt they want to show the world that their country's capacity for developing homegrown technology is rising along with its economy.
President Hu Jintao told a Communist Party Congress last week that encouraging "homegrown innovation" would be a focus of state policy in coming years.
China is jostling with neighbors Japan and India -- as well as longtime space powers the United States and Russia -- for a bigger presence in outer space.
In 2003, China became only the third country -- after the United States and the then Soviet Union -- to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. In October 2005, it sent two men into orbit, and it plans a space walk by 2008.
As well as Japan, India too is planning its first unmanned mission to orbit the moon in 2008, when the United States also plans to launch a lunar orbiter.
Scientists behind China's effort have been careful to leaven their confidence with warnings that space exploration has always been risky.
"We're convinced of our ability to successfully realize satellite exploration of the moon, but on the other hand there is this invisible pressure and anxiety", Ouyang Ziyuan, the project's chief scientist, told Outlook Weekly.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Guo Shipeng in Beijing and James Pomfret in Hong Kong)