China on Saturday carried out the world's first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades, state media said, the next stage in an ambitious space program that aims to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.

The unmanned Chang'e 3 lander, named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, touched down in a 12-minute landing process.

The probe carried a six-wheeled moon rover, which rover was to separate from Chang'e eight hours after the landing and begin a three-month exploration.

China's space program is a source of pride for the country, the third to carry out a lunar soft landing - which does not damage the craft or its equipment - after the United States and the former Soviet Union. The last one was by the Soviet Union in 1976. - AP