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China launches Mars probe in space race with US

China has successfully launched its Tianwen-1 spacecraft to Mars, which is due to arrive on the Red Planet next February after a seven-month, 34-million-mile voyage.

The unmanned space probe took off aboard a Long March 5 Y-4 carrier rocket at 12:41pm (04:41 GMT) from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island province of Hainan, China. 

The craft, which consists of an orbiter, lander and rover, measures just over six feet in height (1.85m) and weighs 530 pounds (240kg). 

It will survey the composition, types of substance, geological structure and meteorological environment of the Martian surface, and look for signs of alien life. 

The launch comes three days after the UAE launched its own Mars orbiter and a week before NASA’s scheduled launch of the Perseverance rover.  

The 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 July 30.

The Chinese mission is named Tianwen-1 (‘Questions to Heaven’) – a nod to a classical poem that has verses about the cosmos.

Engineers and other employees cheered at the launch site on the southern island of Hainan as it lifted off into blue sky aboard a Long March 5 – China’s biggest space rocket.

Livestreams showed a successful liftoff, with rockets blazing orange and the spacecraft heading upward across clear blue skies. 

Site commander Zhang Xueyu declared the mission a success on state broadcaster CCTV.

The UAE 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.

NASA, the American space agency, 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.

‘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, about the Chinese craft.  

Tianwen-1 is ‘broadly comparable to Viking in its scope and ambition’, said McDowell, referring to NASA’s Mars landing missions in 1975 to 1976.

After watching the US 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.

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.

But this time, China is going it alone, and is fast-tracking by launching an orbiter and rover on the same mission instead of stringing them out.

China’s secretive space programme has developed rapidly in recent decades.

Yang Liwei 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. 

‘There is a whole lot of prestige riding on this,’ said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programmes at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult, and 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 and are currently roaming the Martian surface. 

Six other spacecraft are exploring Mars from orbit – three American, two European and one from India. 

China has made huge strides in the past decade, and has laid the groundwork to assemble a space station by 2022 and gain a permanent foothold in Earth orbit.

China has already sent two rovers to the Moon that are operational. With the second, the Yutu-2 rover, China became the first country to make a successful soft landing on the far side of the lunar surface. 

The Moon missions gave China experience in operating spacecraft beyond Earth orbit, although Mars is another story.

The much greater distance means ‘a bigger light travel time, so you have to do things more slowly as the radio signal round trip time is large,’ said McDowell.

It also means ‘you need a more sensitive ground station on Earth because the signals will be much fainter,’ he added, noting that there is a greater risk of failure.

China has upgraded its monitoring stations in the far-western Xinjiang region and northeastern Heilongjiang province to meet the Mars mission requirements, state news agency Xinhua reported last week.

The majority of the dozens of missions sent by the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and India to Mars since 1960 ended in failure.

National security concerns led the US to curb co-operation between NASA and China’s space programme.

In an article Nature Astronomy, mission chief engineer Wan Weixing said Tianwen-1 would look for a landing site on Utopia Planitia, Mars’ largest recognised impact basin, where NASA has detected possible evidence of underground ice.  

If all goes well, the 529-pound (240kg) golf cart-sized, solar-powered rover is expected to operate for about three months, and the orbiter for two years.

Though small compared with America’s hulking, car-sized 2,259-pound (1,025kg) Perseverance, it is almost twice as big as the two rovers China sent to the moon in 2013 and 2019.

Perseverance is expected to operate for at least two years. 

While China is joining the US, Russia and Europe in creating a satellite-based global navigation system, experts say it is not trying to overtake the US lead in space exploration.

Instead, Cheng said China is in a ‘slow race’ with Japan and India to establish itself as Asia’s space power. 

China’s road to Mars has hit a few bumps – a Long March-5 rocket, nicknamed Fat 5 because of its bulky shape, failed to launch earlier this year and coronavirus forced scientists to work from home.

In March, when instruments needed to be transported from Beijing to Shanghai, three team members drove 12 hours to deliver them. 

This Mars-launching season, which occurs every 26 months when Earth and Mars are at their closest, is especially busy.

The UAE spacecraft Amal, also known as Hope, which will orbit Mars but not land on its surface, is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.

The unmanned spacecraft blasted off at 6.58am local time on Monday (21.58 BST on Sunday) from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.

The launch was overseen by the command and control centre at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, which spearheaded the project.  

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which will launch at about midday BST next Thursday (July 30), is up next. 

‘At no other time in our history have we seen anything like what is unfolding with these three unique missions to Mars,’ the Space Foundation’s chief executive officer Thomas Zelibor said in an online panel discussion earlier this week. 

‘Each of them is a science and engineering marvel.’  

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