China on Thursday officially launched its first mission to Mars, state media reported, and with it an ambitious effort to play 16 years’ worth of catch-up to it’s bitterest great-power rival, the United States.
The Long March-5 Y4 carrier rocket blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft launch site on the southern island of Hainan at 12:41pm local time on Thursday, according to the China National Space Administration.
The Chinese mission, named Tianwen-1—or “Questions to Heaven,” in a nod to a classical poem about the universe—includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover that China hopes will join a succession of NASA-built rovers that have slowly explored the Martian soil since 2004.
The Chinese government has remained largely secretive about the Tianwen-1 mission. But a paper published by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that the goal of the Mars mission was to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”
The paper also noted the ambitious nature of the mission, which will compress decades’ worth of incremental U.S. progress in the march to the Martian surface into a single mission.
“No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way,” the researchers wrote. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”
The red planet’s challenging terrain makes this an incredibly ambitious target for China, a relatively late bloomer in the world of space exploration. But on January 4, 2019, the country successfully landed a robotic spacecraft dubbed Chang’e-4 on the far side of the moon, a major milestone for Chinese space exploration.
Namrata Goswami, who has studied space as a geopolitical arena, told the New York Times that China’s Mars mission, in conjunction with a string of other recent accomplishments, was a deliberate challenge to the U.S.
“The Communist Party of China wants to prove to the world that they are actually a legitimate alternative to a U.S.-led space order,” she said.
Traffic to the Red Planet is heavier than usual these days. The United Arab Emirates on Monday successfully launched a Mars orbiter aboard a Japanese rocket. NASA, meanwhile, is expected to launch in the coming days an experimental new Mars rover, or hoverer as the case may be, designed to be able to fly through the thin Martian atmosphere.
Following its successful launch on Thursday, Tianwen-1 will now undertake a seven-month mission, arriving at Mars in February.