China has launched an uncrewed probe to Mars, aiming to demonstrate its technological skill and make a bid for leadership in space. It's the country's first independent mission to another planet.
China launched a Long March 5 Y-4 rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in the southern island province of Hainan on Thursday. In February, the probe is expected to reach Mars where it will deploy a rover to explore the planet for 90 days.
The Chinese rover is named Tianwen-1, which means "quest for heavenly truth," in Mandarin. It weighs 240 kilograms (530 pounds) and is equipped with six wheels and four solar panels, Chinese state media reported.
The spacecraft is set to complete its 55-million-kilometer (34-million-mile) journey to Mars in about seven months. It will then orbit the red planet for two to three months before attempting a landing.
If all goes well, it will search for underground water, analyze the planet's soil and atmosphere, take photos, chart maps as well as search for evidence of possible ancient life.
Hundreds of people gathered to watch the Chinese rocket launch
Livestreams showed a successful liftoff, with rockets blazing orange and the spacecraft heading upward across clear blue skies.
Hundreds of space enthusiasts watched the takeoff from a beach across the bay from the launch site.
The launch marked the second flight to Mars this week, after a United Arab Emirates orbiter blasted off on a rocket from Japan on Monday. The US plans to send Mars rover Perseverance on its way to the red planet next week from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The countries are taking advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are more closely aligned than usual, making for a shorter journey.
Making space for China
In recent decades, China has poured billions of dollars into its space program to catch up with the United States, Russia and Europe.
In 2003, it became the third nation — after the US and Russia — to send a human into space.
The Asian nation sent two rovers to the Moon, Jade Rabbit One and Two (Yutu in Chinese), in 2013 and 2019. The second rover made a historic soft landing on the far side of the Moon, making China the first country to do so.
China also attempted a joint mission to Mars in 2011 with Russia. But the Russian spacecraft carrying the probe failed to exit the Earth's orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.
kmm/sms (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)