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China closer to 2020 Mars mission after successful test

Beijing

CHINA on Thursday successfully completed an obstacle-avoidance test for its upcoming Mars mission, moving the country a step closer to its goal of becoming one of the world's top powers in space exploration.

During the test at a site near Beijing, a probe designed to land on Mars separated from the main body of a space craft at an altitude of 70 meters (230 feet) and slowly descended, finishing 15 meters from the ground. Researchers, who didn't attempt to land the probe, told media at the event that the test was successful, without providing details or taking questions.

The successful test is "a big milestone for China's Mars mission," said Lan Tianyi, founder of Ultimate Blue Nebula, a space consultancy.

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China's first attempt to explore Mars failed in 2012 when the Yinghuo-1 probe crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

The world's second-biggest economy is doubling down on its space programme. China became the first country to land a craft on the far side of the moon in January and wants to have a lunar research station in about 10 years. With an annual space budget of $8 billion, second only to the US, China is looking to send a probe to the red planet next year and build its own space station by 2022.

Thursday's test came a week after an academy belonging to China's state-owned space contractor said in a WeChat post that the spacecraft's propulsion system had passed various hovering, hazard avoidance, slow-down, and landing tests needed to reach Mars's surface.

If the project goes ahead as planned, China will join missions from the US, the United Arab Emirates, Europe and Russia that plan to launch within a roughly three-week window from mid-July to early August 2020, when the relative positions of Earth and Mars are particularly close. That cosmic event occurs every 26 months and allows explorers to travel the shortest distance with the lowest amount of fuel.

The respective missions should then arrive on Mars in early 2021. China has said it expects to do a second Mars probe in 2028 to bring samples back to earth.

The US prohibits cooperation with China's space programme, and President Donald Trump's administration has cited the threat from China as a reason to accelerate a plan to send American astronauts to the moon by 2024.

The next big challenge for China's Mars mission will come with the launch of the Long March 5, China's largest carrier rocket. In October, the China National Space Administration moved a Long March 5 to southern Hainan Province in advance of a launch, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

An earlier version of that rocket failed less than six minutes after liftoff in 2017, and recovering from that setback is crucial for Chinese plans to explore the moon and Mars.

"There are a lot of missions waiting for the Long March 5," said Mr Lan. BLOOMBERG