China sends probe to Mars


China launched a rover to Mars on Thursday, another milestone for its space programme after putting humans into orbit and landing a probe on the Moon.

It is among a trio of nations, along with the United Arab Emirates and the United States, launching missions to the Red Planet this month, taking advantage of a period when Mars and Earth are favourably aligned.

Beijing’s space programme has made huge strides in recent years as it tries to catch up with the United States and Russia.

China’s Mars probe lifted off on July 23 from the southern island of Hainan.

The mission was dubbed Tianwen-1 (“Questions to Heaven”) in a nod to a classical Chinese poem that has verses about the cosmos.

The probe aims to go into Martian orbit, land on the planet and release a small rover to conduct research on its surface.

The craft will travel at least 55 million kilometres (34 million miles) to reach its destination. It will arrive seven months after launch, in February, according to an official.

It is not China’s first attempt to go to Mars.

A previous mission with Russia in 2011 failed because the Russian launcher was unable to get the craft into a transfer orbit to slingshot towards the Red Planet.

The hardware partially disintegrated as it later crashed back to Earth. Following that failure, Beijing decided to try again on its own.

China has poured billions of dollars into its space programme to catch up with the US, Russia and Europe.

In 2003, it became the third nation — after the US and Russia — to send a human into space.

It has launched a slew of satellites into orbit, completing a constellation in June to set up its own navigation system, Beidou, to rival the US GPS system.

The Asian powerhouse plans to assemble a space station by 2022 in Earth orbit.

And China is aiming even higher, hoping to become only the second nation to send humans to the Moon a decade from now.