China is set to launch its own Mars rover, coinciding with a US space mission of the same kind, in the latest chapter of the international space race.
The Chinese space mission is named Tianwen-1, with "Tianwen", being the title of a classical Chinese poem often translated as "Questions to Heaven." The rover is a part of three spacecraft--all Mars-bound--to explore the red planet's surface. It includes an orbiting spacecraft, a lander, and the rover. As the orbiter remains above the surface of Mars, the lander will take the rover down to the ground and allow it to explore and gather data.
China's Rapid Expansion Into the Space Exploration Game
Long March 5, one of China's largest and most powerful heavy-lift rockets, will be sending the spacecraft trio. The launch site has been identified as the Hainan island from the south. A similar rocket, Long March 5B, has demonstrated its capacity to carry space station craft into low Earth orbit last May. The Tianwen program's spacecraft trio is expected to reach Mars sometime in February 2021.
The latest Mars mission from the technological and industrial giant has more positive prospects compared to its predecessors. Back in 2011, China first attempted to send its orbiter Yinghuo-1 to Mars. The plan was to mount Yinghuo to the Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt.
Russia's larger, Mars-bound craft also carries modules from the American Planetary Society as well as another craft from Bulgaria. Unfortunately, Phobos-Grunt's propulsion unit failed, and its payloads were destroyed after reentering Earth's atmosphere in January 2012.
Challenging the US Dominance in the Space Race
The report from Agence France-Presse's Ludovic Ehret included a statement from Chen Lan, an independent analyst at "Go-Taikonauts!" Lan said that China's participation in this chapter of the space race "will challenge the situation dominated by the US for half a century."
Starting in the late 1950s, Cold War rivals--the Soviet Union and the United States--have engaged in a race to achieve several space exploration achievements. Both nations argued that the edge in technology is a prerequisite for national security, aside from the conflicting ideologies of the two nations.
The Soviet Union led the "space race" early on, with Sputnik 1 successfully launched in October 1957. They also managed to send the first man and woman to space with Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova.
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However, the US claimed victory over the race with the Apollo 11 mission. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landed on the moon. The USSR eventually focused on Earth orbital missions while the US continued to land crewed Moon missions.
In response to Tianwen-1's scheduled launch, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics commented. "As a first try for China, I don't expect it to do anything significant beyond what the US has already done," the US astronomer said.
Since the Mars Pathfinder rover in 1996, the US has landed a total of four rovers to the red planet. Its next project, the Perseverance rover, is set to launch on July 30 and is expected to reach its destination by February 2021.