China Blasts Off on Its Long March to Look for Life on Mars
| le 23 July 2020
‘Mars! China is coming!’ Xinhua said on social media
By Trefor Moss – The Wall Street Journal
China launched its first mission to Mars on Thursday, aiming to join the short list of nations that have landed a spacecraft on another planet.
The Tianwen-1 blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the island of Hainan at 12:40 p.m. local time aboard the newly developed Long March 5 rocket. It is expected to make the 34-million-mile journey to Mars in seven months, after which it will attempt to slip into orbit around the planet and send a rover to the surface.
If all goes as planned, China will join the U.S. and Russia as the only countries to successfully put a lander or rover on Mars.
And now the spotlight shifts to the U.S.’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is due to launch its Mars probe in a week’s time.
The version of the Long March 5 used in Thursday’s launch had flown only three times before, including a 2017 failure that became one of the most major setbacks to date for the Chinese space program.
But the latest launch went smoothly, the state news agency Xinhua said. The spacecraft entered Earth orbit as planned before embarking on its journey to Mars.
“Mars! China is coming!” Xinhua said on social media when it announced the launch.
The Tianwen-1 program was named after an ancient series of poems, “Heavenly Questions,” by Qu Yuan, a writer from China’s Warring States period who was revered for his patriotism.
A latecomer to modern space exploration, China has made steady advances since first putting a man into space 17 years ago. The country landed its first rover on the moon in 2013 and became the first country to deploy a rover on the moon’s far side five years later. Another Chinese lunar mission scheduled for late 2020 is expected to collect rock samples and return them to Earth.
Martian missions are fraught with risk and roughly half end in failure. The European Space Agency has tried to land a craft on Mars twice, in 2003 and 2016. The first probe landed but never returned any data and the second was destroyed after crashing into the planet’s surface. Although Russia’s craft touched down successfully, it lost contact after only 14 seconds.
The U.S. has landed on Mars multiple times since the Viking-1 probe touched down there in 1976. The latest American craft bound for the red planet, the Perseverance rover, is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral on July 30.
China’s arrival as a space power has presented the U.S. with a serious rival in celestial exploration for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. China’s stated ambitions in space include the establishment of a manned lunar base by 2045, as well as the capability to send people to Mars by the same year. A Chinese space station orbiting the Earth is due for completion in 2022.
However, China’s advances have galvanized American space efforts. NASA aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 before launching a manned Mars mission in the 2030s.