China has launched an unmanned spacecraft that for the first time in the country's space program will fly around the moon and return to Earth.

The unnamed probe took off early Friday from the Xichang satellite launch center in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

The eight-day program is meant to test technology that will be used in a planned 2017 mission that aims to gather samples from the moon's surface.

The official Xinhua news agency said the latest mission will "obtain experimental data and validate re-entry technologies."

China has launched two lunar probes that orbit the moon. Last year, it landed a rover on the lunar surface. None of the missions were designed to return to Earth.

Beijing hopes to someday join the United States as the only country to have launched manned lunar programs.

It also plans to establish a permanent space station by 2020.