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15 May, 2021 01:02

Chinese lander touches down on Mars in ‘pre-set zone’ in Beijing’s first mission to Red Planet

Chinese lander touches down on Mars in ‘pre-set zone’ in Beijing’s first mission to Red Planet

China’s Zhurong rover has successfully landed on the surface of Mars, according to state media, in the culmination of the country’s first independent mission to the Red Planet after the ship departed from Earth last summer.

The unmanned lander reached its destination on Mars’ Utopia plain on Saturday, Xinhua News reported, noting that the craft would carry out imaging of its surroundings and a self-inspection before moving off of its landing platform.

The 529-pound (240kg) rover survived a turbulent trip through the Martian atmosphere after spending months in orbit, hitting supersonic speeds before a parachute and retrorockets slowed its descent. The landing makes China just the third country to successfully operate a vehicle on Mars behind the United States and the former Soviet Union – though the USSR’s Mars 3 lander was only able to briefly transmit a partial image from the planet’s surface in 1971 before failing. 

Dubbed Tianwen-1, the mission began in earnest last July, when the rover and an orbiter craft lifted off aboard a Long March 5 rocket from a launch site in Wenchang, reaching orbit around Mars in February.

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The associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, cheered the landing as the news made the rounds, congratulating Beijing’s space agency for the feat.

“Congratulations to CNSA’s Tianwen1 team for the successful landing of China’s first Mars exploration rover, Zhurong!” he said in a tweet. “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.”

As the six-wheeled rover finds its way around the new neighborhood, its companion orbiter will continue to circle Mars, accompanied by six other spacecraft operated by the US, the EU and India. Though Zhurong has yet to transmit any visuals from the surface, it is equipped with a number of imaging instruments, and is expected to last for at least 90 Martian days – which are about 39 minutes longer than days on Earth. During that time, it will probe soil samples for signs of water ice, vaporize rocks to determine their composition and monitor the atmosphere, among other tasks. 

A crowning achievement for Beijing’s young space program – which kicked off in 1993 with the founding of its National Space Administration – the Mars landing puts China in an elite class of space-faring nations. In another major step, the country has also embarked on an 18-month project to build its first-ever permanent space station in low Earth orbit, sending the first module into space last month. 

Having sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, China has made rapid advancements over the last two decades, quickly catching up with the most well-established space programs.

As a new space race gears up for the 21st century, Washington, too, is looking to pick up the pace. With the US space shuttle program decommissioned in 2011, forcing NASA to book flights aboard Russian Soyuz craft, the American agency has partnered with private firm SpaceX to develop a new vehicle. Dubbed the Crew Dragon, the SpaceX craft has carried out several successful manned flights to the International Space Station. As part of its Artemis program, named after the twin sister of Apollo – the Olympian deity for which the original US moonshot was named after in the 1960s – the US also hopes to land the first woman and “the first person of color” on the Moon sometime in the mid-2020s.

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