China launches ambitious attempt to land on Mars

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BEIJING (AP) – China on Thursday launched its most ambitious mission to Mars in a daring attempt to join the United States in successfully landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet.

Tianwen-1 was launched on a Long March-5 carrier rocket from Hainan Island, a seaside province off the mainland’s southern coast, state media said.

The livestreams showed a successful takeoff, with flaming orange rockets and the spacecraft heading upward through a clear blue sky. Hundreds of space-goers shouted with excitement on a beach across the bay from the launch site.

It was the second flight to Mars this week, after a United Arab Emirates orbiter exploded on a rocket from Japan on Monday. And the United States intends to launch Perseverance, its most sophisticated Martian rover ever, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., Next week.

The Chinese tandem spacecraft – with both an orbiter and a rover – will take seven months to reach Mars, like the others. If all goes well, Tianwen-1, or “Heavenly Truth Quest”, will search for groundwater, if present, as well as evidence of possible ancient life.

This is not China’s first attempt on Mars. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter accompanying a Russian mission was lost when the spacecraft failed to exit Earth orbit after launching from Kazakhstan, eventually burning up in the atmosphere.

This time, China is going alone. He’s also fast, launching an orbiter and a rover on the same mission instead of spinning them.

China’s secret space program has grown rapidly over the past 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 other side of the moon.

Conquering Mars would put China in an elite club.

“There’s a lot of prestige to be played on that,” said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult. Only the United States has managed to land a spacecraft on Martian soil, eight times since 1976. NASA’s InSight and Curiosity rovers are still operating today. Six other spacecraft explore Mars from their orbit: three Americans, two Europeans and one Indian.

Unlike the other two Mars missions launched this month, China has tightly controlled information about the program – even withholding any name for its rover. National security concerns have led the United States to curb cooperation between NASA and the Chinese space program.

In an article published earlier this month in Nature Astronomy, chief engineer Wan Weixing said Tianwen-1 would orbit Mars in February and search for a landing site on Utopia Planitia – a plain where NASA detected possible evidence of underground ice. Wan died in May of cancer.

The landing would then be attempted in April or May, according to the article. If all goes well, the 240 kilogram (530 pound) golf cart-sized solar rover is expected to run for about three months and the orbiter for two years.

Although small compared to the perseverance of 1,025 kilograms (2,260 pounds) the size of an American car, it is almost twice the size of the two rovers that China sent to the moon in 2013 and 2019. The persistence is expected to be operate for at least two years. .

This Mars launch season – which takes place every 26 months when Earth and Mars are closest – is particularly busy.

The Amal, or Hope spacecraft, which will orbit Mars but will not land, is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. NASA’s Perseverance rover is next.

“At no other point in our history have we seen anything like what is happening with these three unique missions to Mars. Each of them is a marvel of science and engineering, ”Space Foundation chief executive Thomas Zelibor said in an online panel discussion earlier this week.

China’s route to Mars hit a few bumps: A Long Mars-5 rocket, nicknamed “Fat 5” because of its bulky shape, could not be launched earlier this year. The coronavirus pandemic has forced scientists to work from home. In March, when the instruments were due to be transported from Beijing to Shanghai, three members of the team drove 12 hours to deliver them.

As China joins the United States, Russia and Europe to create a global navigation satellite system, experts say it is not trying to overtake the American leadership in space exploration.

Instead, Cheng of the Heritage Foundation said China was in a “slow race” with Japan and India to establish itself as Asia’s space power.

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Ghosal reported from New Delhi. Follow him and McNeil on Twitter: @ aniruddhg1 and @stmcneil

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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