BEIJING — China
landed a spacecraft on Mars
for the first time on Saturday, a technically difficult feat more difficult than a moon landing, in the latest step toward the country's lofty space ambitions.
A rover will stay in the lander for a few days of diagnostic testing before rolling down a ramp to explore the icy region of Mars known as Utopia Planitia, joining an American rover that arrived in February.
China's first Mars landing follows the launch of the main section of a permanent space station last month, as well as a mission that returned moon rocks late last year.
“For the first time, China has left a footprint on Mars, an important step for our country’s space exploration,” the official Xinhua News Agency said on one of its social media
accounts, announcing the landing.
Since 1976, the United States has successfully landed nine times on Mars; the Soviet Union landed there in 1971, but the mission was aborted when the craft stopped transmitting data soon after touchdown.
A rover and a tiny helicopter from the American landing in February are currently exploring Mars, with NASA anticipating that the rover will collect its first sample in July and return to Earth in a decade.
China has previously landed on the moon, but landing on Mars is a much more difficult task. Spacecraft must use shields to protect them from the searing heat of reentry, as well as retro-rockets and parachutes to slow them down enough to avoid a crash landing. The parachutes and rockets must be deployed at precise times to land at the designated spot.
According to Xinhua, the entry capsule entered the Mars atmosphere at an altitude of 125 kilometers (80 miles), kicking off what it called the "riskiest phase of the entire mission."
The craft hovered about 100 meters
(330 feet) above the surface to identify obstacles before touching down on four buffer legs, according to Xinhua. A 200 square meter (2,150 square foot) parachute was deployed and later jettisoned, and then a retro-rocket was fired to slow the craft to almost zero speed.
According to Xinhua, “each step had only one chance, and the actions were closely linked; if there had been any flaw, the landing would have failed.”
According to the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, the mission touched down at 7:18 a.m. Beijing time (7:18 p.m. EDT), but the distance between Earth and Mars caused a delay in confirming success in Beijing.
In a letter of congratulations to the mission team, Chinese President Xi Jinping
described the landing as “an important step in our country’s interplanetary exploration journey, realizing the leap from Earth-moon to the planetary system and leaving the Chinese mark on Mars for the first time... The motherland and people
will always remember your outstanding feats!”
“Together with the global science community, I look forward to the important contributions this mission will make to humanity’s understanding of the Red Planet,” NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a tweet.
The Chinese Mars landing was the top trending topic on Weibo, a popular social media platform, as people expressed their excitement and pride.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since February, when it arrived after a six-and-a-half-month journey from Earth, according to Xinhua.
The rover, named after the Chinese god of fire Zhurong, will be deployed for 90 days to look for signs of life. It is about the size of a small car and equipped with ground-penetrating radar, a laser, and sensors to measure the atmosphere and magnetic sphere.
China's space program has been more cautious than that of the United States and the Soviet Union during their space race.
While the launch of the main module for its space station in April
was successful, the uncontrolled return to Earth of the launch rocket drew international criticism, including from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
China has stated that it wishes to land people on the moon and possibly establish a scientific base there; however, no timetable for such projects has been provided; a space plane is also reportedly in the works.
This report was contributed to by Associated Press
researcher Henry Hou, news assistant Caroline Chen, and video journalist Sam McNeil.