China has successfully landed a spacecraft containing a rover on Mars for the first time, according to state media, in a further sign of the country’s bold ambitions in the realm of space exploration.
The rover was part of the Tianwen-1 unmanned mission launched in July last year. Tianwen means “questions to heaven” and was named after a work by 3rd-4th century Chinese poet Qu Yuan.
The mission, which was described by Chinese media as a “new major milestone” and the “first step in China’s planetary exploration of the solar system”, was intended to match US successes in landing on the red planet. In February, Nasa’s Perseverance rover, equipped with a helicopter, landed successfully on Mars, while the United Arab Emirates-led “Hope” probe reached Mars’s orbit.
China’s state-owned tabloid Global Times reported that the lander and the rover from the Tianwen-1 probe reached a plain on Mars called Utopia Planitia early Saturday morning local time, citing information from the China National Space Administration.
The Tianwen-1 probe’s lander and rover separated with the orbiter at about 4am, after which it had a three-hour flight before entering Mars’s atmosphere, according to the newspaper.
The spacecraft then “spent around nine minutes decelerating, hovering for obstacle avoidance and cushioning, before its soft landing”. The rover, named Zhurong after a Chinese god of fire, and is 1.85m tall and weighs 240kg. It is expected to transverse the planet for about 92 days.
“The landing left a Chinese mark on Mars for the first time,” said Xi Jinping, China’ president, in a message to the scientists involved after the landing.
Xi also stressed the importance of national self-reliance in scientific fields and called for “China’s strength in space technology” to be increased, according to state media.
The probe was launched into space on July 23 last year by a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch pad in China’s southern Hainan province.
In 2011, China’s first attempt to reach Mars, the Yinghuo-1 orbital probe, launched in partnership with Russia, was unsuccessful.
The achievement of the Mars landing is part of a wider expansion of China’s space programme. The country’s engineers launched the first part of its permanent space station into Earth’s orbit late last month.
In 2018, China for the first time launched more vessels into orbit than any other nation. The following year, China’s space agency successfully landed the Chang’e 4 probe on the dark side of the moon, a first for any country.
The US views China’s efforts in space in strategic terms. “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment published by the office of the US director of national intelligence.
Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, welcomed the Chinese rover’s landing, however, writing on Twitter: “I look forward to the important contributions this mission will make to humanity’s understanding of the red planet”.
CNSA said it collaborated with the European Space Agency, as well as the national space programmes of Argentina, France and Austria on the mission.
Additional reporting by Qianer Liu and Christian Shepherd in Beijing.