Encapsulated in a protective probe, a robot with six wheels, was lifted off Earth by a rocket Long March 5 from the Wenchang spaceport on Hainan Island at 12:40 local time (04:40 GMT).
The rover should arrive in orbit around the Mars in February.
The rover Called Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven”, the rover will not actually try to land on the planet surface for a further two to three months.
This strategy “wait-and-see” was used successfully by the US Viking landers in the 1970s. It will help engineers to assess the atmospheric conditions on the planet before attempting what will be a hazardous descent.
The Hainan base commander, Zhang Xueyu, told jubilant mission technicians that the launch had proceeded entirely according to plan.
He added “According to the aerospace control centre, the Long March 5 Y-4 rocket is in normal flight, and the probe to Mars has accurately entered the preset orbit. I now declare the launch of China’s first Mars exploration mission a complete success”.
The touchdown location for the Chinese mission will be Mars’ north equator, a flat plain within the Utopia impact basin. The rover aimed to study the region’s geology – at, below, the surface.
The look of Tianwen-1 a lot like Nasa’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers from the 2000s. The rover weighs some 240kg and is powered by fold-out solar panels.
A elevated mast carries cameras to take pictures and aid navigation; five additional instruments will support assess the mineralogy of local rocks and look for any water-ice signs.
This surface investigation is only half the mission, however, because the cruise ship that is shepherding the rover to Mars, using a suite of seven remote-sensing instruments, will also study the planet from the orbit.
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