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China Launches First Independent Mission to Mars

A security guard adjusts his mask near an exhibition of rovers and bio-domes on Mars in Beijing, July 23, 2020.

An unmanned spacecraft blasted off Thursday on a yearlong journey to Mars, beginning one of China’s most ambitious space missions to date.

The Tianwen-1 lifted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch site on China’s southern Hainan Island aboard a Long March 5 rocket as hundreds of cheering fans gathered on beaches across the bay to witness the event.

The Tianwen-1, which translates into “Heavenly Questions” or “Questions to Heaven,” is expected to reach the Red Planet by February. Once it enters orbit, a landing probe will detach and land on the planet’s Utopia Planitia region, where it will release a small solar-powered rover that will explore the surface for at least three months.

A successful landing would make China only the second nation to place a spacecraft on the Martian surface, with the United States having landed eight probes since 1976. China would also be the first to achieve all three phases -- orbiting, landing and deploying a rover -- in the same mission.

This is China’s first independent mission to Mars. A 2011 attempt failed when a Russian rocket carrying a Chinese orbiter malfunctioned after launch, and was unable to escape Earth orbit.

The Tianwen-1 mission is the most ambitious undertaking of China’s rapidly evolving space program. Only the U.S. and Russia have successfully launched their own astronauts into orbit and successfully achieved a “soft” landing of a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

Last year, though, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft became the first to make a soft landing on the far side of the moon.

The Tianwen-1 is the third mission to Mars this year. A Japanese rocket blasted off Monday carrying an orbiter developed and built by the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. space agency NASA is scheduled to launch a new Martian rover, dubbed Perseverance, July 30.