Marking its first independent mission to another planet, China on Thursday, successfully launched its unmanned probe to Mars, as it bids to establish global leadership in space, and exhibit its technological ambition and prowess.

The Long March 5 Y-4, China's biggest career rocket, took off with the probe from Wenchang Space Launch Centre located on the island of Hainan, at 12:41 p.m. (0441 GMT). The probe, which is expected to reach the red planer in February, will try to deploy a rover for the exploration of the Mars landscape for a period of 90 days.

Looking To Achieve A Rare Feat

If successful, the Tianwen-1, or "Questions to Heaven", which is the name of a poem written two millennia ago, will make China the first country to orbit, land and deploy a rover in its inaugural mission. There will be challenges ahead as the craft nears Mars, Liu Tongjie, spokesman for the mission, told reporters ahead of the launch.

Mars global mosaic shot by the MCC
Mars (Representational Picture) ISRO

"When arriving in the vicinity of Mars, it is very critical to decelerate," he said. "If the deceleration process is not right, or if flight precision is not sufficient, the probe would not be captured by Mars," he said, referring to gravity on Mars taking the craft down to the surface.

Liu said the probe would orbit Mars for about two and a half months and look for an opportunity to enter its atmosphere and make a soft landing. "Entering, deceleration and landing (EDL) is a very difficult (process). We believe China's EDL process can still be successful, and the spacecraft can land safely," Liu said.

Joins An Elite List of Nations

Eight spacecraft - American, European and Indian - are either orbiting Mars or on its surface with other missions underway or planned. The United Arab Emirates launched a mission to Mars on Monday, an orbiter that will study the planet's atmosphere.

The United States has plans to send a probe in the coming months that will deploy a rover called Perseverance, the biggest, heaviest, most advanced vehicle sent to the Red Planet by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). China's probe will carry several scientific instruments to observe the planet's atmosphere and surface, searching for signs of water and ice.

China previously made a Mars bid in 2011 with Russia, but the Russian spacecraft carrying the probe failed to exit the Earth's orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean. A fourth planned launch for Mars, the EU-Russian ExoMars, was postponed for two years due to the coronavirus pandemic and technical issues.

(With inputs from agencies)