China has just launched another spacecraft to the moon. The flight will carry a small capsule around the far side of the moon before returning to earth. If all goes well, the capsule will parachute to a soft landing on the flat steppes of Inner Mongolia, where China usually lands its space capsules.

Officially, this flight is a test of a capsule system to be used in a future robot sample-return mission, which should launch in a few years. Unofficially, the mission serves as another reminder of China's long-term goals of sending astronauts to the moon. The capsule is a scale replica of the crew descent module used on China's Shenzhou astronaut-carrying spacecraft. (Some analysts still refuse to believe China wants to place footprints on the moon. It's another delicious example of politics trumping reason.)

Publicity for this mission has been unusually tight, even by the typically guarded standards of the Chinese space program. This seems to be a trend, judging by recent missions. Perhaps China wants to advance further without tipping off America to its growing achievements. 

Photo by Flickr user Jose Maria Cuellar.