China on Thursday launched its first mission to attempt to land on Mars, as space exploration becomes a growing battleground in the U.S.-China rivalry.

The launch squeaks ahead of a planned U.S. mission to Mars next week, with both nations aiming to put rovers on the Red Planet. If both are successful, it will be China’s first rover to touch Martian soil and the first U.S. rover launch in nearly nine years.

NASA had planned to launch its new rover, Perseverance, on July 17, but the mission was delayed to July 30, according to the U.S. space agency.

The Chinese launch off the southern island of Hainan was widely watched Thursday on state television. The mission is named Tianwen-1, which in Chinese means “to question the heavens.”

Space exploration has taken on symbolic significance in the U.S.-China strategic competition, with both President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping declaring fresh ambitions in the field. Late last year, Trump signed legislation creating the U.S. Space Force, the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Mars has become a focus for the new space race, due to its potential for human habitation. Previous missions have found water on the planet, a necessity for all of Earth’s life-forms.

“Scientists have long hoped to find another celestial body in the solar system and transform it into a second Earth, which would allow humankind to migrate there in great numbers. At the moment, the only possibility is Mars,” Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s lunar project, told Chinese media earlier this week.

Still, a crewed mission to Mars by any country remains years in the future.

The Tianwen-1 mission includes an orbiter that will take high-resolution photographs of Mars and other measurements while circling the planet, as well as a rover that will traverse the surface, collecting data on soil and rock composition, Chinese state media reported.

“In the past, we relied on information shared on foreign websites to study Mars,” Chinese National Space Science Center researcher Liu Yang said, according to an official publication. “Once our own Tianwen-1 lands on the Red Planet, we would have access to firsthand exploration data at the earliest time possible for our original research.”

The spacecraft is expected to take between six and seven months to reach Mars, according to state media.

In 2011, China attempted to launch a Mars orbiter in a joint operation with Russia. But that mission, Yinghuo-1, failed to leave the Earth’s orbit and later broke up over the Pacific Ocean.

Early last year, China landed a rover on the far side of the moon, the first nation to do so.

Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.