China on Thursday launched an unmanned probe to Mars, aiming to demonstrate its technological prowess as the United States will undertake a similar mission on July 30, AFP reported. Both probes are expected to reach the red planet in February 2021 and take advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned for a short journey.

The Mars mission, named Tianwen-1 after “Tianwen”, or “Questions to Heaven”, blasted off from Hainan Island in the country’s south. It comprises of an orbiter, lander and rover to be delivered by the powerful Long March 5 rocket to study the planet’s soil. If successful, it will make China the first country to orbit, land and deploy a rover in its first mission.

Launch commander Zhang Xueyu announced that that the rocket was flying normally about 45 minutes later, according to AP. “The Mars rover has accurately entered the scheduled orbit,” he said in brief remarks shown live on state broadcaster CCTV.

This is the second flight to Mars this week after the United Arab Emirates launched its first mission to Mars on Monday from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.

The Long March 5’s journey through space will take about seven months to reach Mars. “There is a whole lot of prestige riding on this,” said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programmes at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

However, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the Chinese mission won’t do anything significant beyond what the US has already done. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has sent four rovers to Mars since the late 1990s. The next one, Perseverance, is an SUV-sized vehicle that will look for signs of habitable conditions in the planet’s ancient past and evidence of microbial life.

Currently, there are eight active missions exploring Mars – some orbit the planet and some have landed on its surface.