Space race: China to launch landmark mission to Mars TODAY with US hot on its heels

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The mission, called Tianwen-1, will see the nation launch a spacecraft to another planet by itself for the first time ever. If successful, it will also be the first time any country has ever orbited, landed, and released a rover on Mars on its first attempt.

The nation’s mission to the Mars is one of three taking place this year in a space race to the Red Planet, in what has been described as a “new chapter” of Mars exploration.

Indeed, it will not even be the only Mars mission to take place this week. The United Arab Emirates launched its Hope probe to Mars on Monday which will orbit the planet and study its atmosphere.

It will be closely followed by the US, which will also launch its one-tonne Perseverance robot to drive around Mars’ dusty surface in just over a week.

The United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India are all countries that have previously operated – or are currently operating – Mars missions.

READ: Curiosity captures 4K images of Red Planet’s surface

China did attempt to launch a Mars mission in 2011, but this failed when the Russian rocket carrying it failed to perform properly, leaving the spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit.

Today’s launch, however, will use China’s own rocket – a Long March 5 Y-4.

It will blast off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Hainan province, after which the rover – as well as a Mars orbiter and a landing craft – will coast through space for roughly six months before arriving at the Red Planet in February 2021.

Once there, the rover and lander will break through Mars’ atmosphere and begin studying the planet for 90 days.

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Its rover will weigh 240kg – twice the weight of China’s Yutu rovers which operated on the moon.

Laura Forczyk, a space consultant, told New Scientist the mission was “very ambitious” because of the four parts involved: launch, orbit, landing, and the rover. She added: “every single step has to go right.”

According to an article published to the journal Nature by the team behind the mission, Tianwen-1 will build off of China’s existing experience with moon missions.

The team wrote: “Benefiting from the engineering heritage of China’s lunar exploration programme, the Chinese national strategy set Mars as the next target for planetary exploration.

“The main task of Tianwen-1 is to perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet using the orbiter, and to send the rover to surface locations of scientific interests to conduct detailed investigations with high accuracy and resolution.”

According to, the mission’s deputy director Zhang Yu recently said the mission is all ready to go.

The mission official told China Central Television (CCTV) the team had “carried out multiple coordinated manoeuvres over flight and control together with launching site system, the rocket system and the probe system” and said “we are capable of conducting the first Mars probe of our country.”

The name ‘Tianwen-1’ means ‘questions to heaven’ – a reference to a poem written by Chinese poet Qu Yuan that is over 2,000 years old.

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