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China launches experimental spaceship in preparation for unmanned moon return trip

  • In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, an unmanned spacecraft is launched atop an advanced Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. China launched an experimental spacecraft Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Jiang Hongjing) NO SALES

    In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, an unmanned spacecraft is launched atop an advanced Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. China launched an experimental spacecraft Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Jiang Hongjing) NO SALES  (The Associated Press)

  • In this photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, an unmanned spacecraft is launched atop an advanced Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang satellite launch center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014.  China launched an experimental spacecraft Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Jiang Hongjing) NO SALES

    In this photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, an unmanned spacecraft is launched atop an advanced Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang satellite launch center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. China launched an experimental spacecraft Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Jiang Hongjing) NO SALES  (The Associated Press)

  • An unmanned spacecraft is launched atop an advanced Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. China launched an experimental spacecraft Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

    An unmanned spacecraft is launched atop an advanced Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. China launched an experimental spacecraft Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT  (The Associated Press)

China has 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 begun Friday is a test run for a 2017 mission that aims to have a Chinese spaceship land on the moon, retrieve samples and return to Earth. That would make burgeoning space power China only the third country after the United States and Russia to have carried out such a mission.

China already has launched a pair orbiting lunar probes and last year landed a craft on the moon with a rover onboard. None of those missions were programmed to return to Earth.

China has also hinted at a possible crewed mission to the moon at a future date.