A touchdown has been scored! China has become the third nation in human history to successfully land on the surface of Mars on its first attempt.
On Friday afternoon, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which has been orbiting Mars since February, dropped a shielded capsule to the red planet’s surface. The rover Zhurong was inside, strapped to the back of a landing vehicle that would bring it to the surface in the coming hours.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, China’s first interplanetary mission, landed on the surface of Mars at 7:11 p.m. EDT (2311 GMT) on Friday (May 14), though Chinese space officials have not yet verified the exact time and place of touchdown.
After launching to Mars on a Long March 5 rocket in July 2020, Tianwen-1 (which translates to “Heavenly Questions”) arrived in orbit in February.
The Tianwen-1 lander, with the rover attached, separated from the orbiter after more than three months of circling the Red Planet to begin its plunge toward the planet’s surface.
When the lander and rover reached Mars’ atmosphere, they went through a similar process to NASA’s Mars rovers’ “seven minutes of terror” when attempting soft landings on Mars.
After safely parachuting down to the Utopia Planitia field, a plain within an enormous impact basin in the planet’s northern hemisphere, the spacecraft was covered by a heat shield during the fiery descent.
Tianwen-1’s landing platform fired some tiny, downward-facing rocket engines to slow down during the last few seconds of its descent, similar to NASA’s Perseverance rover landing.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has not yet verified the successful landing, but the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) and researchers at Macau University of Science and Technology in China have announced it on social media.
China’s Mars rover, Zhurong, is named after an ancient fire god in Chinese mythology, and will separate from the lander by driving down a foldable ramp. Once deployed, the rover is expected to rove around Mars for at least 90 Mars days (or about 93 Earth days; a day on Mars lasts about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth) to study the planet’s composition and look for signs of water ice.
Under the surface of Utopia Planitia, vast amounts of water ice are thought to exist. It was also the landing site for NASA’s Viking 2 mission in 1976.
Six scientific instruments, including two panoramic cameras, a ground-penetrating radar, and a magnetic field detector, are aboard the six-wheeled rover, which is around the same size as NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
It also has a laser for zapping rocks and studying their structure, as well as a meteorological instrument for studying Mars’ environment and weather.
Zhurong will research the Red Planet alongside the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which will act as a data relay station for communications between Zhurong and mission controllers on Earth. The orbiter is expected to last at least one Martian year, or approximately 687 Earth days.
Tianwen-1 is China’s first Mars landing flight, but it’s not the country’s first shot at Mars. The first, the Yinghuo-1 orbiter, was launched in 2011 as part of Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt Mars sample-return attempt, which never made it past Earth’s orbit after launch, instead crashing into the Pacific Ocean and destroying the spacecraft.
China has been the second country to successfully land a rover on Mars (NASA has landed five rovers on Mars). Following NASA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency (ESA), India, and the United Arab Emirates, China became the sixth body to successfully position a satellite into orbit in February.
Apart from China and NASA, the Soviet Union is the only other country to have landed a probe on Mars, but the mission (known as Mars 3) was cut short when the spacecraft failed just minutes after landing. Two Mars landings have been attempted by the European Space Agency, but both spacecraft have crashed.
Tianwen-1 is China’s first interplanetary mission; up to this stage, Chinese spacecraft have only gone as far as the moon, where the country has successfully landed two rovers as part of its Chang’e program, which most recently returned moon rocks to Earth in December.
China also intends to launch an ambitious Mars sample-return mission in 2028, similar to a joint NASA-ESA sample-return mission scheduled to launch that same year.
Meanwhile, China is working on its new space station, the first piece of which launched in April — and caused global panic last week when large rocket debris landed on Earth uncontrollably. China is also working with Russia on an asteroid sample-return mission that will launch in 2024.