Beijing: China on Thursday conducted a key experiment to land a rover on Mars as it seeks to catch up with India, US, Russia and the European Union to reach the red planet.
The landing test, carried out on simulated conditions, was conducted at Huailai County in the northern Hebei province, ahead of China's first Mars mission slated for next year.
The programme was witnessed by a large number of diplomats, including from India -- which in 2014 became the first Asian nation to reach the Martian orbit and the first nation in the world to do so on its maiden attempt.
With approximately Rs 450 crore (USD 73 million) budget, India's Mangalyaan is the least-expensive Mars mission to date.
China in recent years has emerged as a major space power with manned space missions and landing a rover in the dark side of the moon. It is currently building a space station of its own.
However, China's attempts to send an exploratory probe to Mars called Yinghuo-1 in a Russian spacecraft in 2011 failed as shortly after the launch it was declared lost and later burnt during re-entry.
China plans to launch the Mars probe in 2020, aiming at completing orbiting, landing and roving in one mission, in an unprecedented achievement, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said.
It is expected to land on the red planet before 2021.
Among the invitees to watch Thursday's feat was Deputy Ambassador to India Dr Acquino Vimal.
Ambassadors and diplomats from 19 countries, including France, Italy and Brazil, as well as representatives from the European Union, the African Union and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation were invited to witness the experiment.
The experiment was held on a trial ground, the largest in Asia for test landing on extra-terrestrial bodies, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
The probe is temporarily named Mars-1, the state-run Global Times quoted Ye Peijian, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a chief scientist for the country's space science and deep space missions, as saying.
China's Mars probe includes an orbiting spacecraft, landing craft and a detachable rover to roam the Martian surface, all in one mission, Ye said.
"If we succeed, this will mark a first in the world's Mars expedition history," he said, adding that safe landing on the Red planet is one of the biggest challenges facing the mission.
The experiment simulated the gravity of Mars, about one-third of the gravity on Earth, to test the design of the lander.
Zhang Kejian, administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), said since the official kick-off in 2016, China's Mars exploration programme has progressed well. The hovering and obstacle avoidance test for the Mars lander is a crucial step of the project.
Zhang said China has been actively promoting international cooperation in space exploration. To date, China has signed over 140 space cooperation protocols with 45 countries and international organisations.