If successful, the Tianwen-1 is expected to explore Mars for over three months. Nine years ago, the country launched a probe in collaboration with Russia that got stranded in orbit. Kristin Huang specially for the South China Morning Post.
China launched its first independent probe headed to Mars at 12.41pm on Thursday, a major milestone in Beijing’s mission to build a world-class space programme.
According to Chinese media, the probe, named Tianwen-1, was launched via a Long March-5 rocket from Hainan island and is expected to reach Mars’ gravitational field in February 2021.
Upon a successful landing, the probe is expected to work for at least 90 Mars days, which is longer than three months on Earth. Bao Weimin, an academic with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Xinhua news agency in June that the landing will be the most difficult part of the mission, involving a four-step process that will take seven to eight minutes.
China’s Mars probe consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The lander and rover will make a soft landing on the surface, and afterwards, the rover is expected to study the planet’s surface, atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field.
The name Tianwen literally means “Questions to Heaven” in Mandarin. It was inspired by an ancient poem written by Qu Yuan in which Qu, who was born in 340BC, asked 172 questions about Chinese mythology, religious beliefs and history.
People’s Daily said on Weibo that the Tianwen project reflects the determination and perseverance of Chinese people to go further into space.
This is the second time China has been involved in sending a probe to Mars.
Nine years ago, China cooperated with Russia and sent the Yinghuo-1 spacecraft to orbit around the red planet. The spacecraft got stranded in orbit due to a tech failure and was later declared lost by China National Space Administration.
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System, only larger than Mercury. It’s the nearest planet to Earth. This proximity has long captured the imagination of humans hoping to develop a liveable habitat in the future, despite the vision being nearly impossible with modern technology.
Human exploration of Mars has been going on for decades. The Soviet Union was the first country to attempt a Mars mission when it launched a spacecraft in October 1960 that was destroyed during launch.
In May 1971, the Mars 2 orbiter became the first man-made object to reach Mars, although the landing system failed and the lander was lost. More than a week later, the USSR sent a lander to Mars, which became the first successful landing on the planet, although the lander only worked for 14.5 seconds.
The US had its first successful fly-by of Mars in November 1964, and the Viking missions of the 1970s were the first sustained mission on the planet. Launched in 2001, Nasa’s Mars Odyssey holds the record for the longest time spent orbiting a planet that is not Earth.
United Arab Emirates launched its own Mars probe on July 19 and the spacecraft is en route to Mars.