China is preparing to launch Chang'e-3, an unmanned probe that will soft-land on the moon, some time before the end of the year, according to state-owned news sources. China launched Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2, unmanned lunar probes, into orbit around the moon in 2007 and 2010. Chang'e-3 is the first that will actually land on the surface, using an unspecified technique to slow the probe's speed as it approaches the moon.

"Chang'e-3 has officially entered its launch implementation stage following its research and construction period," Xinhua reported today. A specific date was not announced. The government has been saying for months that the rover will launch in December from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province; today's announcement confirms that the timeline is on track.

China's space program is still in its infancy, but it is a source of national pride. Unlike NASA, the China National Space Administration is pumping money into bold plans. The CNSA has been sending astronauts into orbit since 2003. It plans to eventually build a space station in Earth orbit and send a human to the moon by 2020.