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Race you, NASA!: China confirms July launch of first Mars rover, which rivals Perseverance mission

Race you, NASA!: China confirms July launch of first Mars rover, which rivals Perseverance mission
With a window of opportunity to send robots to Mars opening in July, Beijing plans to launch its Tianwen-1 mission sooner rather than later, and it may come ahead of NASA’s Mars 2020 expedition.

The two scientific missions to the Red Planet both involve deploying a rover on its surface, but for Beijing, it will be a first attempt to do so. The Chinese mission may start slightly ahead of the American one, however. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said on Sunday that it is targeting a July launch for the Long March 5 Y4, which is to deliver an orbiter and a rover to Mars.

NASA’s Mars 2020 launch is scheduled for sometime between July 17 and August 5. In addition to the rover Perseverance, it plans to deliver a small aerial surveillance drone called Ingenuity, which will scout places for the rover to explore, and how to get there.

The Chinese mission is part of efforts to catch up and race ahead of other advanced space-program nations. The most challenging part of it is landing on Mars – a task that China’s engineers met with a combination of a parachute system, retroactive thrusters and an airbag for the final leg. The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander attempted to land on Mars’s surface in 2016, but crashed due to a computer glitch.

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China successfully delivered two rovers to the Moon, in 2013 and 2019, as part of its Chang’e exploration program. Beijing’s ambitious space vision for the future includes a manned lunar mission and a national manned space station.

This year’s window of opportunity for Mars missions, when the distance from Earth is shortest, will last from late July to early September. A third expedition called Al Amal, or ‘Hope’ in Arabic, is being prepared by the United Arab Emirates. The first Arab Mars orbiter has been developed in collaboration with several US universities and is to be launched with a Japanese H-IIA rocket.

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