China’s Tianwen-1 rover mission blasts off for Mars

China’s first homegrown mission to Mars is underway.

The Tianwen-1 mission began on Thursday, July 23, when a powerful Long March-5 rocket blasted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island in southern China at 12:41 a.m. ET.

The rocket is carrying an orbiter, lander, and rover, which is a remarkably ambitious payload as no mission has ever attempted to send three such craft to Mars at the same time. If everything goes as scheduled, they’ll arrive at the red planet in February 2021.

A Long March-5 rocket, carrying an orbiter, lander, and rover as part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China’s Hainan Province on July 23, 2020. Noel Celis/Getty Images

Shortly after lift-off, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) confirmed that the early stages of the mission had gone to plan and that the payload is now on its way to the faraway planet.

Here's a video of the launch of Tianwen-1 atop the Long March 5 Y4. Source: https://t.co/a5vbXcTijb pic.twitter.com/7oRLNegDNK

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) July 23, 2020

When it arrives next year, the lander attempt to deliver the rover to the Martian surface where it will spend time studying its surroundings for evidence of both current and past life and also assess the planet’s environment. The orbiter, meanwhile, will use its scientific instruments to try to learn more about the Martian atmosphere and climate, and also map the planet’s surface.

While the launch was broadcast live on Chinese television, CNSA tends to approach its space missions in a very different way than its American counterpart, with very little hype compared to NASA’s strategy of building interest via insightful content posted on its busy social media channels. Even the time of today’s launch was kept under wraps, with space fans left to speculate about exactly when the rocket would blast off. However, for those keen to know a little more about the mission, the animation below, which appeared on Chinese television just recently, offers an idea of the rover’s design, and how it’ll be delivered to the surface of the planet by the lander.

Watch: Animation shows China's first Mars probe #Tianwen1's journey to the red planet. Tianwen-1 spacecraft is scheduled for launch in late July or early August. pic.twitter.com/Nfld8GW7MB

— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) July 21, 2020

The Tianwen-1 mission is China’s first solo effort to get to Mars, and comes nine years after it attempted to send an orbiter called Yinghuo-1 with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission. But the launch failed soon after lift-off, leaving the spacecraft stranded in orbit until it fell back to Earth two months later.

China’s ambitious mission comes just days after the United Arab Emirates embarked on its first interplanetary mission — also to Mars — and a week before NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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