China yesterday launched its most ambitious Mars mission yet in an attempt to join the US in successfully landing a spacecraft on the planet.
A Long March-5 carrier rocket took off under clear skies at about 12:40pm from Hainan as hundreds of people watched from a beach across the bay from the launch site.
Launch commander Major General Zhang Xueyu (張學宇) announced to cheers in the control room that the rocket was flying normally about 45 minutes later.
“The Mars rover has accurately entered the scheduled orbit,” Zhang said in brief remarks shown live on state broadcaster China Central Television.
It marked the second flight to Mars this week, after a United Arab Emirates orbiter blasted off on a rocket from Japan on Monday.
The US is aiming to launch Perseverance, its most sophisticated Mars rover ever, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, next week.
China’s tandem spacecraft, which has an orbiter and a rover, is expected to take seven months to reach Mars, like the others.
If all goes well, the Tianwen-1 mission, or “quest for heavenly truth,” is to look for underground water, if it is present, as well as evidence of possible ancient life.
This is not China’s first attempt at Mars. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter accompanying a Russian mission was lost when the spacecraft failed to get out of Earth’s orbit after launching from Kazakhstan, eventually burning up in the atmosphere.
This time, China is going at it alone. It also is fast-tracking, launching an orbiter and rover on the same mission instead of stringing them out.
China’s secretive space program has developed rapidly in recent decades.
Yang Liwei (楊利偉) became the first Chinese astronaut in 2003, and last year, Chang’e-4 became the first spacecraft from any country to land on the far side of the moon.
Conquering Mars would put China in an elite club.
“There is a whole lot of prestige riding on this,” said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult. Only the US has successfully landed a spacecraft on Martian soil, doing it eight times since 1976.
NASA’s InSight and Curiosity rovers still operate today.
Six other spacecraft are exploring Mars from orbit: three American, two European and one from India.
Unlike the two other Mars missions launching this month, China has tightly controlled information about the program — even withholding any name for its rover. National security concerns led the US to curb cooperation between NASA and China’s space program.
In an article published this month in Nature Astronomy, mission chief engineer Wan Weixing (萬衛星) said that Tianwen-1 would slip into orbit around Mars in February next year and look for a landing site on Utopia Planitia — a plain where NASA has detected possible evidence of underground ice.
Wan died in May from cancer.
The landing would then be attempted in April or May, according to the article.
If all goes well, the 240kg golf cart-sized, solar-powered rover is expected to operate for about three months, and the orbiter for two years.
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