The Long March-3B rocket, carrying Chang'e-3, its landing module and a robot rover named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southern China's Sichuan province at 1:30 a.m. Monday local time, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Center Director Zhang Zhenzhong made the announcement after the lunar probe entered the Earth-moon transfer orbit and unfolded its solar panels, Xinhua said. The lunar probe is expected to soft-land on the moon in the middle of this month.
It would be the first time a Chinese spacecraft has made such a soft-landing on the lunar surface and if successful, China will become the third to do so after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Chang'e-3's mission will include orbiting, landing and returning to Earth.
Chinese scientists said the Chang'e-3 mission, the most complicated and difficult one ever attempted by China, represents technological breakthroughs.
"More than 80 percent of the technologies adopted in the mission are new," said Wu Zhijian of the National Defense's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry.
The rover will explore areas surrounding the lunar landing spot, he said, adding the mission will also see breakthroughs in remote control between the moon and the Earth.
"We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation," Zhang said.
Xinhua said the Chang'e-3 name derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a woman named Chang'e, who after swallowing magic pills, took her pet "Yutu" to fly toward the moon, where she became a goddess, and has been living there with the white rabbit.
"China's space exploration will not stop at the moon," said another space official. "Our target is deep space."
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third country after Russia and the United States to achieve independent manned space travel, Xinhua said.
Li Benzheng, deputy commander in chief of China's lunar program, said his country's space exploration does not aim at competition.
"We are open in our lunar program, and cooperation from other countries is welcome," he said.
"We hope to explore and use space for more resources to promote human development."
CNN said Chang'e-3 will be able to survey the landscape first and determine the safest spot. It quoted researchers that the crater Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows, is its likely destination.
The BBC, citing Chinese experts, said the 260-pound Jade Rabbit rover can climb up to 30-degree slopes and move at 660 feet an hour.
The British network said a successful mission, which would include looking for natural resources on the moon's surface, would be a major achievement for China as its seeks to set up a permanent space station in Earth orbit.