China has landed its first rover on Mars

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The Tianwen-1 mission, China’s first interplanetary effort, reached the surface of the Red Planet on Friday (May 14) at around 7:11 p.m, although Chinese space officials have yet to confirm the exact time and location of touchdown. Tianwen-1 (which translates to “Heavenly Questions”) arrived in orbit of Mars in February after being launched onto the Red Planet on a March 5 long rocket in July 2020.

It is China’s first mission to Mars, and makes it only the third nation — after Russia and the United States — to have landed a spacecraft on the planet. 

Researchers say that the engineering feat of getting there has taken precedence over science in China’s first tour of Mars, but the mission could still reveal new geological information. They are especially excited about the possible detection of permafrost in Utopia Planitia, the region in the northern hemisphere of Mars where Zhurong has landed.

The biggest test

The Tianwen-1 mission included an orbiter, lander, and rover – making it the first to send all three elements to the planet. The spacecraft left Earth in July 2020 and arrived on Mars in February 2021, but the landing was the biggest test to date of China’s nascent deep space exploration capabilities. Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult, not least because engineers returning to Earth have no real-time control over it and must leave pre-programmed instructions to play. Many missions were lost or crashed on arrival.

After more than six months in transit, Tianwen-1 reached the Red Planet in February where it had been in orbit since. If Zhurong is successfully deployed, China would be the first country to orbit, land and release a rover in its maiden mission to Mars. The first successful landing ever was made by NASA’s Viking 1 in July 1976 and then by Viking 2 in September that year. A Mars probe launched by the former Soviet Union landed in December 1971, but communication was lost seconds after landing.

China is pursuing an ambitious space programme. It is testing reusable spacecraft and is also planning to establish manned lunar research station.