The satellite is named Chang’e 1 after the Chinese goddess of the Moon and was launched yesterday from the Xichang centre in the province of Sichuan, south west China.

Weighing over 2300 kg, the spacecraft is carrying a variety of instruments that will help it map the lunar surface including a CCD camera and imaging interferometer. The presence of radioactive isotopes on the surface will be detected by a gamma-ray spectrometer and a high-energy particle detector. Chang’e 1 will operate 200 km above the surface of the Moon in a low circular orbit and will perform measurements for one year.

The launch is the latest move in an Asian space race. Last month Japan launched a lunar probe, which is currently in orbit around the Moon. India plans to launch a satellite early next year with the aim of creating a high resolution 3D map of the Moon’s surface.