BEIJING -- China launched its first homegrown mission to Mars on Thursday, seeking to solidify its status as a leading player in space by becoming only the second country, after the U.S., to successfully land an exploration craft there.
A Long March-5 rocket carrying the unmanned Tianwen-1 probe lifted off at 12:41 p.m. from the Wenchang launch site on the island of Hainan. The craft is expected to take about seven months to arrive at the red planet.
The Tianwen-1 contains an orbiter, a lander and a rover -- a global first for a Mars mission. After the craft enters orbit, the other two components will separate from it and attempt to touch down. If successful, the rover will spend at least 90 Martian days -- the rough equivalent of three Earth months -- exploring the surface of a planet that could hold signs of life.
Observers are watching closely to see whether Beijing can succeed at landing a rover on Mars, a challenge at which all others besides the U.S. have so far failed. The former Soviet Union launched multiple unmanned missions to the planet but was could not land a probe there. The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander crashed on Mars in 2016 because of a measurement error.
The Tianwen-1 launch comes days after the United Arab Emirates launched a Mars-bound orbiter Monday. The U.S. is scheduled to launch July 30 a rover that will collect and store core samples from rocks to be collected by a future mission.
The Chinese mission seeks to boost the nation's prestige by establishing it as a spacefaring power on a par with the U.S. The Tianwen-1 is slated to arrive on Mars next year, the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Chinese Communist Party.