China is set to launch its first lunar rover mission, marking a key milestone in the country's ambitious space programme.

The Chang'e-3 rocket, carrying the Jade Rabbit rover, was set to blast off at 1:30am on Monday (17:30 GMT on Sunday) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in southwestern Sichuan province.

"We have been rehearsing the entire flight process. But for some crucial stages, we will do repeated exercises, more times than for other processes," said Wu Fenglei, deputy director of the system design department at the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre.

The lunar probe, designed to explore the moon's surface and seek out natural resources, is expected to land in mid-December if all goes according to plan.

The third such rover mission to the moon, China's will boast more sophisticated technology than US and Soviet missions decades earlier.

It will also be used to test deep space communication technologies.

"We can receive information about the rover's working conditions. Secondly, we can also receive image data ... about the surrounding environment gathered from taking images and other perception," senior engineer Xi Luhua said.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV was promising live coverage of the launch, starting an hour and a half in advance.

Space superpowers

The Jade Rabbit can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200 metres per hour, according to its designer, the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute.

Its name, chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters, derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living on the moon as the pet of Chang'e, a lunar goddess who swallowed an immortality pill.

In 2007, China launched its first moon orbiter, the Chang'e One orbiter, which took images of the surface and analysed the distribution of elements.

Advancing China's space programme has been a priority for the country's leadership, with President Xi Jinping calling for China to establish itself as a space superpower.

But China is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers, the US and Russia, which decades ago learned the docking techniques China is only now mastering.

The military-led Chinese programme aims to establish a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send someone to the moon.

Source: Agencies