Consisting of an orbiter, lander and rover, China's Tianwen-1 mission to Mars successfully blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan Island in the early hours of July 23, one of three spacecraft setting off for the red planet in the space of 11 days. Meaning "Questions to Heaven", Tianwen-1 is expected to enter orbit around Mars in February 2021 with the rover's hazardous descent set to occur two to three months later in order to allow scientists to assess the planet's atmospheric conditions beforehand.
If the mission proves successful, China will become only the second nation to land and operate a robotic vehicle on the surface of Mars. NASA has successfully landed four robot vehicles on the Martian surface since 1997 - Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity. After close to 3,000 days on Mars, the latter is still operational. Down through the years, missions to the red planet have had a high failure rate with Europe conducting unsuccessful landing attempts on two occasions. The Soviets did manage to land successfully in 1971 but communication ceased just 20 seconds afterwards.
Despite the difficulty involved, China will be confident after recent successes involving its Chang'e lunar rovers, two of which landed on the moon without incident. Tianwen-1 will be followed on its journey by another U.S. rover in a matter of days with NASA's next generation Perseverance on course for liftoff. It will search for past signs of life on Mars and collect dirt which may be analyzed on Earth one day in the future. Out of all the martian and lunar rovers that have made successful landings over the years, Opportunity has traveled the furthest distance, according to official NASA data. It very slowly rumbled 28 miles between 2004 and 2018 before a dust storm resulted in it ceasing communication and entering hibernation, possibly due to the dust covering its solar panels.