China successfully launches independent mission to Mars

China’s National Space Administration on Thursday afternoon confirmed the successful launch of Tianwen-1 – its first independent mission to Mars.

A Long March 5 rocket carrying the spacecraft ignited at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in south China’s tropical Hainan province at 12:41 pm (0441 GMT), according to Xinhua News Agency.

A live stream of the launch hosted by Chinese media company douyu.com was shared live on YouTube.

Tianwen-1, whose name means “Questions to Heaven,” is a combined orbiter, lander and rover that aims to explore the Martian environment and search for hints of life.

The spacecraft will travel for about seven months until it reaches Mars. It will orbit the red planet for two to three months before attempting a landing.

If all goes according to the plan, the lander will release a rover in April to roam around the surface of Mars and conduct experiments.

If Tianwen-1 is successful, China will become only the third country to land a spacecraft on Mars, after the US and the Soviet Union.

No other spacefaring nation has attempted a landing with a rover on their first Mars mission.

It is a risky endeavour – previous Mars missions by other nations have had a success rate of about 50 per cent.

Australian space analyst Morris Jones told dpa that Tianwen-1 is one of China’s most difficult missions ever attempted due to the unique challenges of Mars.

“The most difficult part is the final descent and landing on the surface. Mars has a very thin atmosphere, which means that parachutes don’t provide all of the braking a lander needs. Thrusters must work correctly for the final phase of the landing,” Jones said.

However, China is not the only nation attempting the feat. The United Arab Emirates launched its own Mars-bound orbiter on Sunday, while NASA is set to blast off its Perseverance rover next week.

Jones said that while China’s Tianwen-1 mission was “sophisticated,” it will face stiff competition from NASA, whose “rover is probably the most advanced robot spacecraft ever developed for exploring other worlds.”

China is not expected to immediately unseat the Western space industry which includes NASA and private companies like Lockheed Martin and Airbus, according to Norbert Frischauf, partner at the Munich-based consultancy firm SpaceTecCapital Partners.

Frischauf told dpa that China’s satellite industry was still “eight years behind” the West.

US tech billionaire Elon Musk founded the private aerospace company SpaceX in 2002, with the intention of sending a manned mission to Mars.

China previously launched an orbiter destined for Mars on a Russian rocket in 2011, but the mission failed because the rocket malfunctioned.