China's Jade Rabbit rover sent back its first pictures from the moon, as officials on Monday lauded the first lunar soft landing in nearly four decades as a step forward for "mankind as a whole."

"Exploration of outer space is an unremitting pursuit of mankind," China's space agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) said in a statement.

The successful mission reflects "the new glory of China to scale the peaks in world science and technology areas," it said, adding it was committed to exploring and using space "for peaceful purposes."

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The space agency also offered to step up cooperation with other countries in the field "to utilize outer space and benefit mankind as a whole."

Images released by China's official news agency Xinhua show the lander, covered in golden foil, standing in the Sinus Iridum or Bay of Rainbows, its solar panels open to generate power.

The silver rover is named Yutu or Jade Rabbit after the pet of Chang'e, the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology.

The imprints of its tracks in the dark soil of the lunar surface can clearly be seen after it rotated to proudly display a red Chinese flag to the camera.

China's Jade Rabbit moon rover.CCTV

China first sent an astronaut into space a decade ago and is the third country to complete a lunar rover mission after the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The landing is a key step forward in Beijing's ambitious military-run space program, which include plans for a permanent orbiting station by 2020 and eventually sending a human to the moon.

The projects are seen as a symbol of China's rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as the Communist Party's success in reversing the fortunes of the once-impoverished nation.

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The central government said the mission was "a milestone in the development of China's aerospace industry under the leadership of... Comrade Xi Jinping."

Chinese state-run media have covered the mission extensively, and in an editorial headlined "Great moon mission", the China Daily said its significance "goes far beyond earning the country the name of a technological powerhouse."

The Yutu was deployed at 4:35 am (2035 GMT Saturday), several hours after the Chang'e-3 probe landed on the moon, said the official news agency Xinhua, and the photo session began at about 11:42 pm after the rover moved a few meters away from the lander.

The color images were transmitted live to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, where President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang watched the broadcast.

Ma Xingrui, chief commander of China's lunar program, declared the mission a "complete success" after the photographs showed the lander and rover were working, Xinhua said.

The potential to extract the moon's resources has been touted as a key driver behind Beijing's space progra, with the celestial body believed to hold uranium, titanium, and other minerals.

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But the phenomenal cost of missions means such projects are not economically viable, experts say.

"China wants to go to the moon for geo-strategic reasons and domestic legitimacy," said China space expert Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

"With the US exploration moribund at best, that opens a window for China to be perceived as the global technology leader -- though the US still has more, and more advanced, assets in space."