After several months orbiting Mars, a Chinese rover successfully landed on the Martian surface on Friday, making China the second country, after the United States, to achieve a soft landing on the Red Planet.
The rover, named Zhurong in honor of the Chinese god of fire, is part of the Chinese mission Tianwen-1, launched in July 2020. The landing is a major milestone for the Chinese space agency, which has progressed rapidly in just a few minutes. decades.
Few details on the Tianwen-1 mission have been made public, but the Mars probe and its accompanying rover are designed to map the Martian surface and search for signs of life on the planet.
China’s National Space Administration said in a statement Friday that the Tianwen-1 spacecraft “has been operating normally” since its launch last year and had collected “a huge amount of scientific data.”
The Zhurong rover landed shortly after 7 p.m. ET in an area of Mars known as Utopia Planitia on Friday. The vast icy plain was also where NASA’s now-missing Viking 2 lander landed in 1976.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Missions Directorate, congratulated the Chinese space agency shortly after the landing was confirmed. “Together with the global scientific community, I welcome the important contributions that this mission will make to the understanding of humanity on the red planet”, he wrote on Twitter.
China’s Tianwen-1 mission is a key part of the country’s lofty space exploration ambitions. In December 2020, a Chinese probe landed on the moon and then returned to Earth with a cache of lunar samples. As a result, China became only the third country, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, to accomplish such a feat.
At the end of April, China put the first module of a planned space station into orbit. Rocket debris from that launch then fell back to Earth, crashed into the Indian Ocean and drew criticism from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and others over China’s handling of the incident.
This has been a year for the Mars missions. In addition to the Chinese rover Zhurong, the Red Planet is home to several other new spacecraft. NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully landed on the Martian surface on February 18 and officially began collecting scientific data this week. Previously, the rover served as a communication base for a small experimental helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, which carried out the first motorized and controlled flights on another planet.
In February, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe also entered orbit around Mars, making the United Arab Emirates the fifth country or entity to do so. The spacecraft is designed to circle Mars and study the atmosphere of the Red Planet.