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A Chinese Long March rocket is scheduled to blast off to the Moon on Sunday evening at about 6pm British time carrying a small robotic rover that will touch down on to the lunar surface in about two weeks’ time – the first soft landing on the Earth’s only natural satellite since 1976.The take-off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan Province marks the latest stage in China’s grand ambitions not just to put a man on Moon by the end of the next decade, but to build a permanent lunar base from which it can plan missions to Mars and beyond.While the United States scales back its grand ideals of re-conquering the Moon, China is forging ahead with a bold three-step programme beginning with the robotic exploration of possible landing sites for the first Chinese astronauts to set foot on lunar soil between 2025 and 2030.“This launch fits in perfectly with China’s logical development of its capabilities in space,” said science writer and astrophysicist David Whitehouse, author of The Moon – A Biography.“It is sending astronauts into space to do more complicated things each mission, and each Moon probe builds on the last. They plan to bring them together and it’s very possible the next person to walk on the Moon could be Chinese in 15 years’ time,” Dr Whitehouse said.It is now 10 years since China sent its first astronaut into space. It quickly followed this up with the first Chinese spacewalk and docking procedure in space. At the same time, it has instigated a progressively more complex set of unmanned lunar missions with increasingly sophisticated probes.Tomorrow’s launch of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe will be the first to involve a soft landing. The last time anything touched down softly on the Moon was Russia’s Luna-24 probe in 1976 – indicating how lunar exploration has shifted towards more remote orbiting satellites.The probe is targeted to land within a huge volcanic crater known as Sinus Iridum, which means the Bay of Rainbows, on about 14 December. Once it has landed, a small, six-wheeled rover called “Yutu”, or Jade Rabbit, will be powered up by its solar panels to begin the exploration of the surrounding moonscape.Yutu is designed to roam the lunar surface for at least 90 Earth days – three Lunar days – covering an area of about five square kilometres. It will send probes beneath the surface as well as taking high-resolution images of the rock, a flat area formed from the molten basalt released by lunar volcanoes several billion years ago.The journey of the Chang’e-3 probe and it’s the final landing will be closely monitored by the European Space Agency (ESA), which is cooperating closely with China. ESA’s own launch station in Kourou, French Guiana, will immediately start receiving signals from the mission after take-off and it will upload commands to the probe on behalf of the Chinese control centre.