China successfully launches its Tianwen-1 Mars rover

The spacecraft with a Mars rover aboard has reached its initial orbit.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

China has launched its Tianwen-1 lander, rover and orbiter mission and successfully reached a pre-determined transfer orbit, according to CASC, the nation’s main space contractor. The mission launched early this morning on a powerful Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch site. If the mission succeeds — and there are still a lot of hurdles on the way — China could join the US as the only other nation to get a rover to the red planet’s’ surface.

Designed to check the Red planet’s geology, the 530-pound rover is equipped with six instruments including a weather station, magnetic field detector and ground-penetrating radar, along with two cameras. The orbiter will work in concert with the rover and carry two cameras, subsurface penetrating radar and a geological spectrometer.

The next phase of the mission will be crucial for Tianwen-1. In 2011, China successfully launched the Yinghuo-1 Mars mission and reached parking orbit aboard a Ukrainian Zenit rocket. However, the burns designed to send it from that orbit to Mars failed, leaving it stranded over Earth. It eventually re-entered our orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific in January, 2012.

Adding to the difficulty, China is attempting its first Rover landing on Mars, something only the US has managed so far. The red planet is littered with the remains of previous failed attempts by Europe, the former USSR and the US equally. Success would thus crown China as a top nation in terms of space exploration.

Tianwen-1 has become the second of three missions to launch during the current window of Mars passing relatively close Earth. The UAE successfully launched the Arab world’s first mission to Mars just three days ago, and the US will launch its Perseverance rover to Mars on July 30th. All three missions are expected to arrive in February of 2021.