China assaulting Mars: the Asian giant on Thursday successfully launched a probe that will travel a long journey to the red planet, in the midst of diplomatic and technological rivalry with the United States.
The machine was propelled into an azure sky by a Longue-Marche 5 rocket, the most powerful of the Chinese range, which took off in a cloud of smoke from the center of Wenchang, on the tropical island of Hainan (south ), noted an AFP team.
Under an overwhelming temperature of 34 degrees, engineers and employees in blue coats cheered after the shot. The space agency confirmed the successful launch half an hour later.
The probe will not arrive before 2021. It will first have to make the long Earth-Mars journey in some seven months. The distance varies but is at least 55 million kilometers – that is, 1,400 times around the world.
Ambitious, China hopes to do in this first independent attempt almost everything the United States has achieved in several Martian missions since the 1960s.
That is to say, place a probe in orbit, land a lander on Mars, then bring out a small remote-controlled robot so that it can conduct surface analyzes.
This mission offers a renewed prestige to Beijing against Washington, which has just ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, the latest avatar of the intense rivalry between the two giants of the Pacific.
“This is clearly a milestone for China. This is the first time it has ventured far into the solar system,” Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP , in the USA.
“If it succeeds, it would be the first time in history that a non-American lander and unmanned robot have operated on Mars,” said Chen Lan, an analyst for the GoTaikonauts.com site, specializing in the Chinese space program.
The mission was named “Tianwen-1” (“Questions to Heaven-1”) in homage to a poem from ancient China that deals with astronomy.
– ‘National pride’ –
The robot weighs more than 200 kilos, it is equipped with four solar panels and six wheels. It will be operational for three months.
Among its missions: conducting soil and atmospheric analyzes, taking photos, or even contributing to the mapping of the red planet.
The Longue-Marche 5 rocket sets off for Mars from the launch pad in Wenchang (southern China) on July 23, 2020 (AFP / Noel CELIS)
These rovers “were good training” because the lunar and Martian terrain “are broadly similar”, according to Jonathan McDowell.
But the Earth-Mars distance is 140 times greater than the Earth-Moon path. Consequence: slower telecommunications and a longer trip, during which failures can occur.
The Asian country is not the only one to take advantage of the current reduced Earth-Mars distance to propel a probe towards the red planet: the United Arab Emirates launched theirs on Monday and the United States must do the same on July 30 .
Sino-American competition that evokes the space race between the USSR and the United States at the time of the Cold War.
China’s goals with this mission?
“The same as those of many space nations,” Carter Palmer, space specialist at US firm Forecast International, told AFP.
“Space exploration is a source of national pride. The ambition is also to improve humanity’s knowledge of Mars.”
– ‘Very confident’ –
China is investing billions of euros in its space program, to catch up with Europe, Russia and the United States.
She sent her first astronaut to space in 2003.
China is also launching satellites for itself or on behalf of other countries. It has just completed in June the constellation of its Beidou navigation system – rival of the American GPS.
The Longue-Marche 5 rocket installed on the launch pad in the center of Wenchang (southern China), July 23, 2020 just before its launch (AFP / Noel CELIS)
The Asian giant also plans to assemble a large space station by 2022. And he hopes to send men to the Moon within ten years.
China had previously tried unsuccessfully to ship a probe to Mars in 2011 during a joint mission with Russia.
Will luck be there this time?
“The risks and difficulties are considerable,” including the perilous landing on Mars, notes Liu Tongjie, spokesperson for the Tianwen-1 mission. “But we are also very confident.”
“It’s 50-50,” judge Chen Lan. “China may fail this time. But it will one day succeed. Because it has the will, the determination and enough financial and human resources to make it happen.”