It's a big first for China: the independent launch of an unmanned probe to Mars. Riding a Long March 5 rocket out of the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, the Tianwen-1 rover was sent into space at around 12:40pm local time on Thursday. "I now declare the launch of China's first Mars exploration mission a complete success," the Hainan base commander proclaimed after what the BBC describes as the rocket's "picture-perfect getaway." The rover will make it into Mars' orbit in February, at which point it will analyze atmospheric conditions before undertaking "seven minutes of terror" a couple of months later—the perilous landing on the planet's surface, in a flat plain north of the planet's equator. "Entering, deceleration, and landing ... is a very difficult [process]," a mission spokesman tells Reuters, though he adds his team is confident they can pull it off.
While the spacecraft in orbit uses a slew of instruments to study Mars from above, the rover will get to work on the ground, examining the planet's geology. Tianwen-1 isn't the only mission to the red planet making headlines: The UAE launched its Hope probe toward Mars on Monday, and the US plans on sending up its own Mars rover, Perseverance, next week. The BBC notes only the US so far has had success with long-term Mars missions. If all goes according to plan, however, China will rack up another first as the only country so far to orbit, land, and release a Mars rover in its first go-around. A previous joint bid to do so with Russia in 2011 didn't work out after the spacecraft carrying the rover couldn't get out of Earth's orbit and disintegrated. (CNBC notes some of China's other successes and failures in space.)