China successfully launched an unmanned probe to Mars on Thursday in its first independent mission to another planet, a bid for global leadership in space and a display of its technological prowess and ambition. China’s largest carrier rocket, the Long March 5 Y-4, blasted off with the probe at 12:41 p.m. (0441 GMT) from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan. The probe is expected to reach Mars in February where it will attempt to deploy a rover to explore the planet for 90 days.
If successful, the Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven”, which is the name of a poem written two millennia ago, will make China the first country to orbit, land and deploy a rover in its inaugural mission.
There will be challenges ahead as the craft nears Mars, Liu Tongjie, spokesman for the mission, told reporters ahead of the launch. “When arriving in the vicinity of Mars, it is very critical to decelerate,” he said. “If the deceleration process is not right, or if flight precision is not sufficient, the probe would not be captured by Mars,” he said, referring to gravity on Mars taking the craft down to the surface.
Liu said the probe would orbit Mars for about two and a half months and look for an opportunity to enter its atmosphere and make a soft landing.