WENCHANG: China launched an unmanned probe to Mars on Thursday (Jul 23) in its first independent mission to another planet, a journey coinciding with a similar US mission as the powers take their rivalry into deep space.

The two countries are taking advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned for a short journey, with the US spacecraft due to lift off on Jul 30.

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It is a crowded field. The United Arab Emirates launched a probe on Monday that will orbit Mars once it reaches the Red Planet.

But the race to watch is between the United States and China, which has worked furiously to try and match Washington's supremacy in space.

The Chinese mission has been named Tianwen-1 ("Questions to Heaven") in a nod to a classical poem that has verses about the cosmos.

It launched on a Long March 5 – China's biggest space rocket – from the southern island of Hainan.

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Tianwen-1 is expected to arrive in February 2021 after a seven-month, 55-million-km voyage.

The mission includes a Mars orbiter, a lander and a rover that will study the planet's soil.

Factfile on China's aim to reach Mars with an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The mission is expected to launch between July 20 and 25. AFP/John SAEKI

"As a first try for China, I don't expect it to do anything significant beyond what the US has already done," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The United States has already sent four rovers to Mars since the late 1990s.

The next one, Perseverance, is an SUV-sized vehicle that will look for signs of ancient microbial life, and gather rock and soil samples with the goal of bringing them back to Earth on another mission in 2031.

The Chinese mission is similar to NASA's Viking missions in 1975-1976, in that it has both an orbiter and a lander, McDowell said.

Tianwen-1 is "broadly comparable to Viking in its scope and ambition", he added.

CATCHING UP

After watching the United States and the Soviet Union lead the way during the Cold War, China has poured billions of dollars into its military-led space programme.

"China joining (the Mars race) will change the situation dominated by the US for half a century," said Chen Lan, an independent analyst at GoTaikonauts.com, which specialises in China's space programme.

China has made huge strides in the past decade, sending a human into space in 2003.

The Asian powerhouse has laid the groundwork to assemble a space station by 2022 and gain a permanent foothold in Earth orbit.

China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft launched for Mars aboard a Long March 5 rocket. (Photo: AFP/STR)

China has already sent two rovers to the moon. With the second, China became the first countRead More – Source

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