China will land on the moon on Saturday (Reuters)

A Chinese robotic space probe is due to land on the surface of the moon on Saturday, signalling a significant expansion in the country's space exploration programme.

In the first soft lunar landing since a Russian mission in 1976, a Chinese lander is scheduled to touch down in the moon's Bay of Rainbows on Saturday afternoon (GMT), using rocket thrusters to manoeuvre into landing position. After a few hours it will release a robotic rover called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit.

The event will be watched by millions of TV viewers in China. To promote public involvement and interest in the mission the name Jade Rabbit was chosen from an online poll of more than 3 million votes. The name is a reference to a Chinese legend about a goddess called Chang'e who lives on the Moon with her pet rabbit, Jade.

The landing marks the climax of the Chang'e 3 Moon mission, which launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan Province on 1 December.

Chinese officials say the lunar landing is a mission of "great scientific and economic importance". Chinese space scientists say the mission is designed to test new technologies and build China's intellectual expertise within the space programme, while the Jade Rabbit rover will gather scientific data and capture images.

International experts say the historic journey marks the next step in China's ambitious plans to land people on the moon by 2025. China already has more missions and rover landings planned for 2017, to collect lunar soil samples. Speculation is rife that - if successful - these missions could lay the foundations for lunar landings manned by Chinese astronauts.

Much hinges on the success of the Chang'e 3 mission and the Jade Rabbit lander. A post on the mission's official blog by the Chinese Academy of Sciences described the landing as the mission's "most difficult" task.