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China launches ambitious mission to land rover on Mars

China launched a rover and orbiter on Thursday in an attempt to join the United States in successfully landing a spacecraft on Mars.

The Long March-5 carrier rocket took off around 12:40 pm (6:40 am CET) from an island south of China's mainland.

Launch commander Zhang Xueyu said the rocket was flying normally around 45 minutes later, and that it had entered the scheduled orbit.

The tandem spacecraft, Tianwen-1 or "quest for heavenly truth", will take seven months to reach Mars and if it goes well, it will look for possible ancient life and underground water.

China previously attempted to reach Mars but the mission failed after the spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere after taking off from Kazakhstan.

“There is a whole lot of prestige riding on this,” Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programs at the Heritage Foundation, told the AP.

Only the US has successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times since 1976.

The mission marked the second flight to Mars this week, after a United Arab Emirates orbiter blasted off on a rocket from Japan on Monday.

The US, meanwhile, will launch its sophisticated Mars rover, Perseverance from Florida next week.

“At no other time in our history have we seen anything like what is unfolding with these three unique missions to Mars. Each of them is a science and engineering marvel,” the Space Foundation’s chief executive officer Thomas Zelibor said in an online panel discussion earlier this week.

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