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China launches first independent Mars probe, calls it ‘Questions to Heaven’

Mars (NASA/Released)

China on Thursday launched its first independent Mars probe, a milestone in the country’s ambitious space programme which aims to have a space station by 2022. If successful, the probe, named Tianwen-1 – which in Mandarin means “Questions to Heaven” – will join an international community of explorers on Mars, comprising the US, Europe, Russia, India, and soon the UAE which launched a mission to the red planet on July 20.

The launch was planned for years but comes in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, which China seems to have brought under control, and the worst floods it is experiencing in decades – the launch carries a show of strength for the international community especially the western powers.

China’s first Mars probe Yinghuo-1 launched in 2011 had failed. Yinghuo-1, launched in November 2011, two years later than originally planned from Kazakhstan on a Russian spacecraft, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2012.

On Thursday, Chinese official media reported that a Long March-5 rocket, the country’s largest launch vehicle, carried the 5-tonne spacecraft from the Wenchang Spacecraft launch site on the coast of southern China’s Hainan province at 12:41 pm.

“About 36 minutes later, the spacecraft, including an orbiter and a rover, was sent into the Earth-Mars transfer orbit, embarking on an almost seven-month journey to the red planet,” the China National Space Administration (CNSA) was quoted by official news agency, Xinhua.

The Mars mission is named Tianwen-1 from a poem written by Qu Yuan (about 340-278 BC), a leading poet of ancient China. “The name signifies the Chinese nation’s perseverance in pursuing truth and science and exploring nature and the universe,” said the CNSA.

The Mars rover, which is expected to work on Mars for at least 90 Mars days (more than three months on Earth), will carry out patrol exploration and research on geomorphic landforms of Mars, Bao Weimin, an academic with the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Xinhua in June.

“A safe landing on Mars is the most difficult and risky part of the mission and the lander carrying the rover will be slowed down through four steps,” said Bao who is also the director of the Committee of Science and Technology under the CNSA. The whole landing process will take about seven to eight minutes, Bao had said.

Last November, China had successfully mounted an experiment simulating the process of a probe hovering, avoiding obstacles and descending to land on Mars. In January 2019, China’s Chang’e-4 probe landed on the far side of the moon, making it the first spacecraft to touch down on the part of the moon, which is never visible from earth. China had lauded India’s Mars mission when it was launched in 2014.

The successful mission to Mars was not only India’s pride but also that of Asia, China had then said, adding that it was a landmark in the world of space exploration.

“We congratulate India on the Mars satellite entering orbit (of the planet) successfully,” foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, had said in 2014.

“This is the pride of India and the pride of Asia and a landmark progress in humankind’s exploration of outer space. So we congratulate India on that,” Hua had added.


© 2020 the Hindustan Times