China successfully launched its first Mars probe on Thursday, aiming to complete orbiting, landing and roving in a single mission, taking an ambitious step towards planetary exploration of the solar system.
A Long March-5 rocket, China’s largest and most powerful launch vehicle, carrying the spacecraft with a mass of about five tonnes, soared into the sky from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the coast of southern China’s island province of Hainan, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
About 36 minutes after the launch, the spacecraft, including an orbiter and a rover, was sent into the Earth-Mars transfer orbit, embarking on an almost seven-month journey to the red planet, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
The Chinese Mars probe named Tianwen 1 or Quest for Heavenly Truth 1, will fulfil three scientific objectives: orbiting the red planet for comprehensive observation, landing on Martian soil and sending a rover to roam the landing site.
It will conduct scientific investigations into the planet’s soil, geological structure, environment, atmosphere and water, media reports said.
It should arrive in orbit around the red planet in February.
The Long March 5 rocket will transport the robotic probe to the Earth-Mars transfer trajectory before the spacecraft begins its self-propelled flight toward Mars’ gravity field.
According to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, a State-owned space conglomerate, the probe will travel for about seven months before it reaches Mars, which at the farthest point of its orbit is about 400 million kilometres from Earth and 55 million kilometres at the nearest point.
It said the probe consists of three parts — the orbiter, the lander and the rover — and they will separate in Mars orbit. The orbiter will remain in the orbit for scientific operations and to relay signals while the lander-rover combination makes an autonomous descent and landing.
The rover has six wheels and four solar panels and carries six scientific instruments. It weighs over 200 kilogrammes and will work for about three months on the planet, the designers said.
China aims to catch up with India, the US, Russia and the European Union to reach the red planet.
“The triple-task expedition of Tianwen-1 marks another milestone in China’s aerospace science and technology development, as well as a fresh daring adventure in the country’s long march of outer space exploration following its lunar program and the endeavour to build a space station,” the state-run media commented.
In a paper last week, the scientific team behind Tianwen-1 said the probe is “going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter. No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way.”
By contrast, NASA sent multiple orbiters to Mars before ever attempting a landing. Pulling off the landing is a far more difficult task, CNN reported.
“If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough,” the Chinese team wrote in the journal Nature.
China in recent years has emerged as a major space power with manned space missions and landing a rover in the dark side of the moon. It is currently building a space station of its own.
China’s previous attempt to send an exploratory probe to Mars called Yinghuo-1, in a Russian spacecraft in 2011 failed as shortly after the launch it was declared lost and later burnt during re-entry.
The US, Russia, India and the EU have succeeded in sending missions to Mars regarded as the most complex space mission. India became the first Asian country to have successfully launched its Mars orbiter mission Mangalyaan which entered the orbit of the red planet in 2014.
India also became the first country to have entered the Martian orbit in its first attempt.
China’s Mars probe is the second such mission launched this month.
A United Arab Emirates spacecraft to go to Mars was launched from Japan on July 20, in what is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
The launch of the spacecraft named Amal, or the ‘Hope Probe’, marks the start of the seven-month journey to the red planet. The US space agency (NASA) aims to despatch its next-generation rover, Perseverance, on July 30.
On April 24, China named its first Mars exploration mission as Tianwen-1 as it celebrated ‘Space Day’ to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of the country’s first satellite Dong Fang Hong-1 in 1970.
The CNSA said all of China’s planetary exploration missions in the future will be named on Tianwen series, signifying the Chinese nation’s perseverance in pursuing truth and science and exploring nature and the universe, the state-run Xinhua news agency had reported.