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In Depth: China's ambitious plans to land a rover on Mars next year

Probe will study red planet's climate and geology -- and look for signs of life

A Long March-5 rocket sits at the Wenchang Space Launch Center China's Hainan Province on July 17. China's plans to launch a rover to explore Mars in April 2021.   © Xinhua/AP

The easiest way to send a spacecraft to Mars is to fling it into space at just the right angle. If done right, the probe will hurtle along a crazy-looking elliptical route for about nine months until it reaches the red planet's field of gravity and begins circling its target.

The best time to launch such a mission is once every 26 months, when the distance between Earth and Mars shortens to a mere 60 million kilometers -- the nearest the celestial neighbors get to one another. Astronomers call this period "close approach," and the next one will occur on Oct. 6.

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