The Chinese space program’s hotly anticipated Zhurong Mars lander landed successfully on the Red Planet’s Utopia Planitia region on Friday evening, according to state-owned media group CGTN and SpaceNews.
The mission, which is the first that China has ever attempted to land on the Red Planet, launched back in July 2020 and arrived in Martian orbit earlier this year along with the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which is still circling high above the planet.
The landing represents a major accomplishment for China’s space program, which has significantly ramped up its ambitions in recent years. Those efforts have seen several successful Moon rovers and a Moon sample return mission, and the country also just launched the first segment of an upcoming space station — though that success was clouded by debris from the mission falling back to Earth in an uncontrolled descent.
The logistics of a Mars landing mission, though, are substantially more complex compared to those missions, due to the planet’s great distance from Earth and thin atmosphere, which lead to a notorious “seven minutes of terror” during which any attempt at landing loses contact with Earth (though the New York Times reports that because of the specific orbital mechanics of the mission, China’s period without communications were likely to be several minutes longer).
Case in point, over the years numerous robotic landers that were supposed to touch down softly on Mars have instead been destroyed on impact. In fact, China is now only the third country in history to land softly on the Martian surface.
During its approach to the Martian surface, the lander carrying Zhurong used a heat shield, parachutes and thrusters to slow its descent, according to New Scientist.
Compared to NASA, China’s space program has been comparatively tightlipped about the the mission, to the chagrin of some observers.
Like NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars in February, a key goal of the Zhurong rover is to search the Red Planet for signs of ancient life.
The rover is solar powered, according to New Scientist‘s reporting, and is expected to survive for about 90 days after touching down. It carries equipment including cameras, radar, a magnetic field detector, weather instrumentation and tools to investigate the chemical composition of the natural environment.
At about 530 pounds, the rover is chunkier than NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but dwarfed by NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, which are about the size of small automobiles.
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