China launched, Thursday, July 23, a probe that will travel a long journey to the Red Planet, in a context of diplomatic and technological rivalry with the United States.
The machine was propelled by a Longue-Marche 5 rocket which took off in a thick cloud of smoke from the Wenchang launch center, on the tropical island of Hainan, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). The probe will not arrive before 2021. It will first have to complete the long Earth-Mars journey in about seven months. The distance varies, but it is at least 55 million kilometers – or 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 to carry out analyzes on the surface.
If successful, the launch would give Beijing a boost of prestige against Washington, which has just ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, the last avatar of the intense rivalry between the two giants of the Pacific.
“This is clearly a landmark event for China. This is the first time that she has ventured far into the solar system ”, says Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States. “If successful, it would be the first time in history that a non-US lander and unmanned robot have operated on Mars.”, underlines Chen Lan, analyst for the site GoTaikonauts.com, specialized 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. The robot weighs more than 200 kilos, it is equipped with four solar panels and six wheels, and will be operational for three months. Among its missions: conducting soil and atmospheric analyzes, taking photos or contributing to the mapping of the red planet.
China already has experience in this area, since it rolled two small robots on the Moon, with “Jade Rabbits” 1 and 2 – deposited in 2013 and 2019 respectively. These rovers “Constituted good training” because the lunar and Martian lands “Are broadly similar”, according to Jonathan McDowell. But the Earth-Mars distance is 140 times greater than the Earth-Moon distance. Consequence: slower telecommunications and a longer trip during which failures can occur, he emphasizes.
The Asian country is not alone in taking 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 . A China-USA competition that evokes the space race between the USSR and the United States at the time of the Cold War.
Source of national pride
China’s goals with this mission? “The same as those of many space nations”, according to Carter Palmer, space specialist at US firm Forecast International. “Space exploration is a source of national pride. The ambition is also to improve humanity’s knowledge of Mars. “
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 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 to ship a probe to Mars in 2011 during a joint mission with Russia. But the attempt had collapsed and Beijing then decided to continue the adventure alone.
Will luck be there this time? “It’s very ambitious for a first try. So much so that I would be surprised if the mission was a total success ”, estime Jonathan McDowell. “It’s 50-50”, juge Chen Lan. “China may fail this time. But she will succeed one day. Because it has the will, the determination and sufficient financial and human resources to achieve this. “