China announced today that it had successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars for the first time in its history and on the first attempt, making it the only country other than the United States to do so.
According to the China National Space Administration, the Zhurong rover, named after a Chinese fire deity, successfully landed in Utopia Planitia about 7:18 p.m. EST as part of the Tianwen-1 mission. The rover should be able to drive down the ramp of its landing platform soon, ready to investigate its strange surroundings. If there was any doubt about China's space prowess before, the doubt has been dispelled now that the country has added interplanetary landings to its list of achievements. “Mars is difficult,” says Roger Launius, former NASA chief historian. “This is a significant event.”
Tianwen-1 was launched in July 2020 as part of a summer Martian armada that also included the Perseverance rover from NASA and the Hope orbiter from the United Arab Emirates. In February, all three missions landed on Mars. Although Perseverance went straight to the moon, Tianwen-1 took an elliptical orbit around Mars to give its scientists a bird's-eye view of their proposed landing site in Utopia Planitia, a massive impact basin on the earth. According to Brian Harvey, a writer who covers China's space programme, "China does not have its own accurate Mars charts." That was the case until today, when Tianwen-1's controllers thought they'd seen enough to confidently begin the spacecraft's daring descent.
Zhurong and its rocket-powered landing platform separated from the orbiter, plunged toward Mars, and began a fiery plunge through the planet's upper atmosphere, encased in a cone-shaped protective shell. The spacecraft unfurled parachutes to slow its descent after jettisoning its protective shell lower in the atmosphere, then rode thrusters down to a gentle landing on the surface. According to Andrew Jones, a science journalist who covers China's space programme, this was "very similar" to the powered landings China has used in its Chang'e missions to the moon. In 2020, the most recent of these missions returned samples to Earth.
Other countries have attempted and failed to land on Mars, but China's success demonstrates how it is quickly catching up to, if not surpassing, all of its peers. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union attempted several landings, the nearest of which was Mars 3, which touched down on the planet but stopped operating moments later. In 2003, the UK's Beagle 2 lander made it to the surface. The mission was doomed when the craft's communications antenna failed to deploy. With their Schiaparelli lander, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia both came close—until it crashed on Mars in 2016. In 2022, the European Space Agency will try again with its Rosalind Franklin rover. Only the United States had previously successfully operated any spacecraft on Mars for an extended period of time, beginning with the Viking landers in 1976 and continuing with the country's numerous landers and rovers currently exploring the earth. China is now a member of the most prestigious and exclusive club in the world. Mark McCaughrean, ESA's senior scientific advisor for research and discovery, says, "It's a huge day for China." “No one knows how difficult it can be to safely descend to the surface than we do.”
China will now wait an unknown period of time, possibly a week, before driving the Zhurong rover down a ramp from the lander and onto the earth. According to Jones, the six-wheeled solar-powered vehicle has a projected lifespan of 90 Martian days and a top speed of 200 metres per hour, but it will most likely explore at a much slower rate. China's Tianwen-1 orbiter will send commands to the rover, with ESA's Mars Express orbiter serving as a backup. The rover would then operate autonomously on the earth, similar to the procedures used by NASA for its own fleet of robotic Martian explorers.