Touchdown confirmed. China has become the third nation in human history to safely land on the surface of Mars — on its first attempt.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which had been orbiting Mars since February, released a shielded capsule to the surface of the red planet on Friday afternoon. Contained within was the rover Zhurong, strapped to the back of a landing vehicle that will deploy the rover to the surface in the coming hours.
Provided the rover rolls off its lander without any trouble, China will follow the US and become just the second nation to have a rover travel across the Martian surface.
The spacecraft’s scheduled landing time, according to Chinese space watchers, was 4:11 p.m. PT.
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There may’ve been celebrations and high-fives exchanged in CNSA’s mission control, but the hoots or hollers we’re accustomed to seeing during NASA landings weren’t televised live. Instead, amateur astronomers listened out for the telltale radio signals being beamed back to Earth from the spacecraft to try to discern how the mission was proceeding.
Chinese state media confirmed the landing at 5:38 p.m. PT on Friday.
Zhurong landed in Utopia Planitia, one of Mars’ largest impact craters. NASA’s defunct Viking 2 spacecraft landed in the same crater in 1976. Utopia Planitia is expected to house a cache of underground ice and may have once been covered by a Martian ocean. Where there was once water, there may have been life. Zhurong, like NASA’s Perseverance, will explore the region and search for signs of past life.
“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,” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of NASA’s science mission directorate, on Friday.
The last 10 months have been busy for Martian exploration.
Three spacecraft, including Tianwen-1, launched to Mars in July 2020, taking advantage of Earth’s proximity to the red planet. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which will survey Mars’ atmosphere from space, inserted itself into orbit in February. Not long after, NASA’s now-famous rolling rover, Perseverance, and its history-making flying companion Ingenuity, reached the surface of Mars, landing in an ancient lakebed that may once have been home to Martian life.