While the coronavirus pandemic might have disrupted the rhythm of life on Earth, man’s mission to explore space and unlock the secrets of the universe seems not to have missed a beat. Evidence of that is the launch last Thursday of China’s first independent mission to Mars, a milestone in an integral part of the Chinese dream – building a world-class space programme. It marked the second flight to Mars in a week, after a United Arab Emirates orbiter blasted off on a rocket from Japan on Monday, while the United States is aiming to launch its latest and most sophisticated Mars rover yet. The Chinese probe, named Tianwen-1, or literally “questions to heaven” in Mandarin, is the most scientifically comprehensive mission to investigate Martian structure, geology, mineralogy, space environment and soil and water-ice distribution, according to Chinese scientists. What also sets it apart is that China is fast-tracking the process by launching an orbiter, a lander and a rover on the same mission instead of stringing them out. “Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, ” the scientists said. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.” China launches its first independent mission to Mars At a time when China is trying to commercialise space by building its own satellite navigation network, the ambitious scope of the Tianwen-1 mission is a reminder of the Cold War-era competition between the United States and the old Soviet Union. Tianwen-1 is expected to reach Mars’ gravitational field in February 2021. This is the second time China has been involved in sending a probe to Mars. Nine years ago, it cooperated with Russia in launching the Yinghuo-1 spacecraft, but it became stranded in orbit because of a technical failure and was later declared lost. China has steadily moved into the upper tier of spacefaring nations in the past two decades. Apart from launching its own astronauts and space stations, it has also landed rovers on the moon twice. One mission, Chang’e-4, became the first to land a robotic rover on the far side in January last year. Conquering Mars would raise China’s profile in an elite club of space powers. Mankind can only benefit from peaceful competition between them to extend and deepen our knowledge of the universe. It is no place for space wars.