China follows UAE; Launches its own ambitious Mars Mission

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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China Mars Mission Launch
The Long March 5 rocket lifting off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

China’s unmanned Tianwen-1 blasted off carrying an orbiter, lander and rover on a seven-month voyage to Mars. The mission, if successful, would place China on the front lines of interplanetary exploration.

China had not revealed the launch date or time in advance. The Long March 5 roared to life at 6:51 AM GMT, from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hong Kong.

The launch was announced on the Twitter handle of China’s Xinhua News and its successful launch was later confirmed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation who said that the 11,000-pound spacecraft was placed on the planned trajectory to Mars.

The all-Chinese Tianwen-1 mission is the most ambitious attempt at interplanetary exploration by the nation yet. The solar-powered rover is intended to work for at least 90 days, while the orbiter ‘s planned life is a full martian year, equal to two Earth years.

The road to Mars is busy this year as on Sunday, United Arab Emirates’ Mars orbiter, Hope, was launched successfully from Japan. Next in line is the launch, on July 30, of NASA’s $2.4 billion Perseverance Mars rover, which is an SUV-sized vehicle that will search for signs of ancient microbial life, and gather samples of rock and soil with the intention of returning them to Earth on another mission in 2031, from Cape Canaveral.

All three missions are taking advantage of a relatively short distance launch opportunity to Mars which occurs once every 26 months when Earth and Mars are in favorable positions. This time frame allows rockets to fly directly. The spacecrafts are expected to reach their target in February 2021.

The name Tianwen-1 comes from an ancient Chinese poem, which means “questions to heaven” aptly enough.

While NASA’s Perseverance rover received its name from a seventh-grader in Virginia who won a NASA competition open to school children around the country. Hope refers to the effort of the UAE to build a “knowledge-based” high-tech economy, thus encouraging Middle East youth to pursue math and science careers.

China has successfully sent two rovers to the moon, one of which landed on the far side that had never been visited before. Their attempt to send an orbiter to Mars, hitchhiking on a Russian rocket, ended in failure when the Zenit booster collapsed in 2011.

China has earlier informed their plans to have a Mars sample return mission around 2030.