China Launches Country’s First Independent Mission to Mars, Complete With Rover

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A Long March-5 rocket launches from Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province on July 23, 2020.

A Long March-5 rocket launches from Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province on July 23, 2020.Photo: Noah Celis (Getty Images)

China successfully launched its first independent mission to Mars, dubbed Tianwen-1, from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province on Thursday. China’s “Long March-5” rocket is carrying an orbiter, lander, and even an uncrewed rover that will explore the surface of Mars in 2021, provided everything goes according to plan.

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China first attempted a mission to Mars in 2011 when its equipment hopped a ride on a Russia rocket, but that rocket failed, falling back to Earth. Today’s launch marks a new era for China’s space ambitions, attempting three milestones that took the U.S. decades to do in individual pieces: orbiting Mars, executing a soft landing on Mars, and driving a rover on the surface of Mars.

Just two countries have successfully landed on Mars: the former Soviet Union, first in 1971, and the United States, first in 1976. The U.S. has completed several Mars missions since the 1970s, including the first rover on Mars, named Sojourner, which landed on July 4, 1996.

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China’s rocket will reach Mars in February of 2021, a relatively quick trip because Earth and Mars are incredibly close right now. The proximity of the two planets is a window of opportunity that only happens once every couple of years. But that means a lot of countries have scheduled their Mars launches for this summer, with the UAE launching its first mission to the red planet this past weekend, and NASA planning to launch its latest Mars rover, dubbed Perseverance, sometime by early August.

Chinese state media agency Xinhua released footage of the launch on YouTube.

China’s rover will be active for roughly 92 Earth days (90 Martian days), according to Chinese news outlet Sixth Tone, and information from the rover will be relayed to Earth via the orbiter, which should be in commission for at least one Martian year (687 Earth days).

China’s Mars rover measures 6.6 feet by 5.4 feet and weighs roughly 529 pounds. The rover is equipped with a number of instruments, the most important of which are detailed at the space news site Parabolic Arc:

  • ground-penetrating radar capable of imaging 100 meters below the surface
  • multi-spectrum camera
  • navigation and topography camera
  • surface compound detector
  • magnetic field detector
  • meteorological measurement instrument.

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People of the 20th century often dreamed of visiting Mars, and there were plenty of promises that we would do just that in the 21st century. But even the most ambitious scientists, like Wernher von Braun, recognized back in the 1950s that it could take a hundred years before humans ever set foot on the planet.

Tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk still insist that they’ll be able to take humans to Mars by 2024, but there are plenty of skeptics who doubt such a thing is feasible in such a short timeframe. Musk has said he’s like to die on Mars—presumably of old age, of course. But given Musk’s recent closeness to China, it’s unclear if he’d ever consider launching from that country instead of the U.S., something that would be a huge blow to American prestige in space.

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