China has launched an unmanned probe to Mars in its first independent mission to visit another planet, a bid for global leadership in space and display of its technological prowess and ambition.
At 0441 GMT on Thursday, China’s largest carrier rocket, the Long March 5 Y-4, blasted off with the probe from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island province of Hainan.
The mission is expected to reach Mars in February, when it will attempt to deploy a rover to explore the planet for 90 days.
If successful, the latest mission, also known as Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven” – a Chinese poem penned two millennia ago – will make China the first country to orbit, land and deploy a rover in its inaugural mission.
Eight spacecraft – American, European and Indian – are currently either orbiting Mars or on its surface with other missions under way or planned.
The United Arab Emirates launched its own mission to Mars on Monday, comprising an orbiter to study the atmosphere.
The United States is expected to be close behind, with plans to send a probe in coming months.
The probe will deploy a rover on Mars called Perseverance, the biggest, heaviest, most advanced vehicle sent to the Red Planet by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
China’s probe will carry several scientific instruments to observe the planet’s atmosphere and surface, searching for signs of water and ice.
China previously made a Mars bid in 2011 with Russia, but the Russian spacecraft carrying the probe failed to exit the Earth’s orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.
A fourth planned launch for Mars, the Russian-European Space Agency ExoMars, was postponed for two years due to the coronavirus pandemic and technical issues.