China plans to launch a rover to Mars on Thursday on a trip that coincides with a similar U.S. mission as the powers launch its rivalry into space.
The two countries use a time when Earth and Mars are closest to send their probes. China's mission is scheduled to launch on Saturday and the US spacecraft on July 30.
It will be a crowded field. The United Arab Emirates launched a probe on Monday that orbits Mars as soon as it reaches the Red Planet.
But the observation race is between the United States and China, which have worked furiously to achieve Washington's supremacy in space.
The Chinese mission was called Tianwen-1 ("Questions to Heaven"), alluding to a classic poem that contains verses about the cosmos.
It is expected to launch on Thursday with a long March 5 – China's largest space rocket – from the southern island of Hainan, depending on the weather.
Tianwen-1 is expected to arrive in February 2021 after a seven-month journey of 55 million kilometers.
The mission includes a Mars orbiter, a lander, and a rover that examine the planet's soil.
"As a first try for China, I don't expect it to do anything significant beyond what the United States has already done," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The United States has sent four rovers to Mars since the late 1990s.
The next one, Perseverance, is an SUV-sized vehicle that looks for signs of old microbial life and collects rock and soil samples to return to Earth on another mission in 2031.
The Chinese mission is similar to NASA's Viking missions in 1975-1976 in that it has both an orbiter and a lander, McDowell said.
Tianwen-1 was "largely comparable in size and ambition to Viking," he added.
Catch up –
After watching how the United States and the Soviet Union took the lead during the Cold War, China has spent billions of dollars on its military-led space program.
"China's entry (the Mars race) will change the US-dominated situation for half a century," said Chen Lan, an independent analyst at GoTaikonauts.com who specializes in China's space program.
China has made great strides in the past decade, sending a human being into space in 2003.
The Asian power plant laid the cornerstone for building a space station by 2022 and gaining a permanent foothold in the earth's orbit.
China has already sent two rovers to the moon. With the second country, China was the first country to successfully land on the other side.
The lunar missions gave China experience of operating spacecraft outside of Earth's orbit, but Mars is a different story.
The much greater distance means "longer, easier travel time, so things have to be done more slowly because the radio signal orbit is long," said McDowell.
This also means that "you need a more sensitive ground station on Earth because the signals are much weaker," he added, noting that there is a higher risk of failure.
China has upgraded its monitoring stations in the far west of Xinjiang and northeastern Heilongjiang Province to meet the requirements of the Mars mission, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported last week.
The majority of the dozens of missions sent to Mars by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India since 1960 failed.
Tianwen-1 is not China's first attempt to get to Mars.
An earlier mission with Russia in 2011 ended prematurely because the start failed.
Now Beijing is trying alone.
"As long as (Tianwen) lands safely on the surface of Mars and sends the first image back, the mission will be … a great success," Chen said.
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and is generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)