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China launches rocket in an ambitious mission to find life on Mars


Tianwen-1 Mars rover is known as the ‘quest for heavenly truth’ (Picture: Roman Balandin/TASS Source)

China’s secretive space exploration programme has launched an ambitious attempt to land on Mars and find evidence of life there. 

A spacecraft known as Tianwen-1, or the ‘quest for heavenly truth’, left from Hainan Island, a resort off the south coast of the country, early this morning.

Launch commander Zhang Xueyu announced to cheers in the control room that the rocket was flying normally about 45 minutes after lift-off.

‘The Mars rover has accurately entered the scheduled orbit,’ he said in brief remarks shown live on state broadcaster CCTV.

If successful, China would become only the second country ever after the United States to land on the red planet.

Its tandem spacecraft – which features both an orbiter and a rover – will take seven months to make the journey.

Scientists say one of the goals of the mission is to search for evidence of life on Mars, which is seen as the ‘holy grail’ of space exploration. 

It marks the second flight to Mars this week, after a United Arab Emirates orbiter blasted off on a rocket from Japan on Monday.

Thousands gathered to watch the launch (Picture: EPA)

The US is also aiming to launch Perseverance, its most sophisticated Mars rover ever, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, next week.

Dr Rain Irshad, from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that China’s launch marks an ‘impressive milestone’ for global space exploration.

She said: ‘They have two aims; with the orbiter they are going to be looking at mapping the surface and the environment of the planet.

‘And then the next goal is to search for evidence of life which has become the holy grail of space scientists at the moment. 

‘We know that we’ve reached the limit of what we can measure with the instruments on the surface so this is a precursor to returning samples from Mars which is the next great aim of space science.’

Today’s mission is not China’s first attempt to reach Mars. In 2011, it partnered with Russia but the spacecraft was lost after failing to get out of Earth’s orbit. It eventually burnt up in the atmosphere.

Since then, China’s secretive space programme has developed rapidly in recent decades.

China’s previous Mars missions have ended in failure (Picture: EPA)

Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut in 2003, and last year Chang’e-4 became the first spacecraft from any country to land on the far side of the moon.

Conquering Mars would put China in an elite club. ‘There is a whole lot of prestige riding on this’, said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programmes at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

But landing on Mars is notoriously difficult. Only the US has successfully landed a spacecraft on Martian soil, doing it eight times since 1976.

Unlike the two other Mars missions launching this month, China has tightly controlled information about the programme – even withholding the name for its rover.

National security concerns have led the US to curb co-operation between Nasa and China’s space programme.

Before he died from cancer in May, the mission’s chief engineer Wan Weixing wrote an article for the journal Nature Astronomy. 

In it he said Tianwen-1 would slip into orbit around Mars in February 2021 and look for a landing site on Utopia Planitia – a plain where Nasa has detected possible evidence of underground ice.

The landing would then be attempted in April or May, according to the article.

If all goes well, the 240kg golf cart-sized, solar-powered rover is expected to operate for about three months, and the orbiter for two years.

Though small compared with America’s car-sized 1,025kg Perseverance, it is almost twice as big as the two rovers China sent to the moon in 2013 and 2019.

This Mars-launching season – which occurs every 26 months when Earth and Mars are at their closest – is especially busy this year.

The UAE spacecraft Amal, or Hope, which will orbit Mars but not land, is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.

‘At no other time in our history have we seen anything like what is unfolding with these three unique missions to Mars. Each of them is a science and engineering marvel,’ the Space Foundation’s chief executive officer Thomas Zelibor said in an online panel discussion earlier this week.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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