May 14, 2021

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China launches first solo Mars mission called Tianwen-1 ahead of US

A Long March-5 rocket, carrying an orbiter, lander and rover as part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China’s Hainan Province on July 23, 2020.

Noel Celis | AFP | Getty Images

China launched a major Mars mission on Thursday in what it hopes will become its first successful landing on the Red Planet. 

The mission, known as Tianwen -1 will see a rover, lander and orbiter launched aboard a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island on Thursday. It is China’s first solo mission to Mars after a previous attempt with Russia failed several years ago. 

The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation declared the launch a success and said the Tianwen-1 rover had been successfully transferred to the “predetermined orbit,” according to an official post on WeChat. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. is gearing up for a launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover which is scheduled for July 30. 

China’s Tianwen-1 will arrive at its destination seven months after launch. The orbiter will orbit Mars while the rover and lander will make a journey to the surface of the Red Planet. 

Scientists from the world’s second-largest economy hope to map the geological structure of Mars, investigate the characteristics of its soil and water-ice distribution, study the surface material composition and more broadly understand the environment on the planet, according to the mission’s chief scientist. 

The U.S. is the only other country that has landed and operated a rover on Mars, so if China’s mission is successful, it would be a big feat. 

China has put a big emphasis on space over the last few years. President Xi Jinping urged the industry earlier this year to make China a “great space power as soon as possible,” according to state-backed China Daily. 

But China has faced some setbacks in getting its Mars ambitions off the ground. In 2011, it attempted to launch an orbiter called Yinghuo-1 on a Russian spacecraft being launched by a Ukrainian rocket. But the launch ultimately failed. 

And in 2017, the second launch of the Long March 5 rocket ended in failure. 

But China has also seen some recent successes. It was the first nation to land a spacecraft on the so-called dark side of the moon. And earlier this year, China launched the final satellite to complete its global navigation system called Beidou. 

China’s Mars mission comes after the UAE successfully launched its Mars probe, named Hope, earlier this month and as the U.S. gears up for its own mission to the Red Planet. 

The flurry of Mars launches has to do with timing. Approximately every 26 months, the Mars and Earth are closer than usual, allowing for a launch. 

The U.S. is slated to launch its Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover on July 30 with the aim of studying life on the planet. The rover will seek signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past but also indications of “past microbial life,” according to NASA. 

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