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China Lands on Mars in Crowning Moment for Space Program

HONG KONG—China landed a rover on Mars early Saturday, becoming the third nation after the U.S. and the Soviet Union to land on the red planet, achieving a crucial landmark in its quest to be at the forefront of space exploration.

The lander containing the Zhurong rover, named after the god of fire in ancient Chinese mythology, touched down on Mars, according to state media reports citing China’s national space agency. The target landing site had been the southern part of Mars’s Utopia Planitia, a large plain. It descended from the Tianwen-1 orbiter that has been circling Mars since February.

The landing—and automated process lasting minutes—was the most challenging aspect of China’s most ambitious space mission to date. The probe had to rely on parachutes, retrorockets and its blunt shape to decelerate and touch down on the planet, the China National Space Administration has said.

The country’s space program has been a source of pride in China as President Xi Jinping continues to preside over an era of nationalism. China has largely had to go-it-alone in space exploration after being shut out of NASA-related initiatives since 2011 by U.S. law.

“This is a crowning moment for China,” said

Namrata Goswami,

a co-author of the book “Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space.” “It sends a signal to the world that it has caught up with the U.S. in capacity for interplanetary exploration, and that it can be an alternative to the U.S. for space leadership.”

China’s Tianwen-1 reached orbit around Mars in February shortly after the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft, which was the first interplanetary probe launched by an Arab country. They joined six other spacecraft already orbiting Mars from the U.S., the European Space Agency and India, all actively studying the desert planet.

The U.S. and China are locked in a fierce battle in the race for Mars. China’s Zhurong rover is circling Mars as the country attempts to land a spacecraft on the red planet for the first time, just months after NASA landed its Perseverance rover. Photos: NASA; CCTV

Nine days later, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on the Jezero Crater of Mars, where it will spend the next two years looking for evidence of past life. The rover also carried with it the Ingenuity helicopter drone, which carried out the first controlled powered flight on another planet.

So far, the only space agency that has successfully landed and operated on Mars is NASA. Its first lander, the Viking 1, touched down on the planet in 1976. Its first rover, the microwave-oven-sized Sojourner, landed on Mars in 1997 in a location called Ares Vallis and sent back more than 500 photos. The U.S. has successfully operated five rovers on Mars.

The European Space Agency has tried twice unsuccessfully in the past decades. The Soviet Union also tried twice in the early 1970s at the height of the Cold War space race. Its Mars 2 probe crashed and its Mars 3 lander touched down in 1971, but survived only long enough to transmit a single image back to Earth before failing.

Zhurong is expected to spend 90 Martian days—known as sols—on the red planet. Sols are about 39 minutes longer than days on Earth.

China’s space agencies got vital practice landing rovers on the moon, but Mars presented tougher challenges and was seen as a barometer of China’s technological prowess.

The mission’s Mars entry, descent and landing were automated and took around nine minutes, Chinese state media has said. The lander would have had to carry out its mission on its own as the communication delay with Earth was expected to be about 20 minutes.

Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven,” consists of an orbiter, lander and rover. The symbolically named Zhurong is a six-wheeled solar-powered rover. It is smaller than NASA’s nuclear-powered Perseverance, which is currently roving Mars, and not as technologically advanced.

Zhurong is equipped with scientific instruments including remote-sensing cameras and particle analyzers. The mission’s goals include investigating the planet’s soil and looking for signs of subsurface water ice.

“The mission is very ambitious,”

Roberto Orosei,

a scientist at the Institute for Radioastronomy in Bologna, Italy, said before the landing. “They plan to do in one go three steps NASA took several decades to achieve: getting into orbit, landing on the surface and then driving a rover around.”

China conducted its first human space flight in 2003, four decades after the Soviet Union and the U.S. achieved that milestone. Since then, China’s leaders have often equated progress in space with the nation’s rise, financing initiatives with deep pockets and tackling plans with the same precision as its five-year economic plans.

Now it is rapidly achieving new milestones. Last month, China sent the first section of a planned space station into orbit, and is scheduled to launch more components in the coming months. It hopes to have the station—seen as a rival to the International Space Station—operational by next year.

While Chinese space technology is still catching up to that of the U.S., China has in recent years moved to bolster its space leadership credentials through international collaborations. In March, China’s space agency and Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities agreed to partner to form a permanent lunar base and invited other nations to take part.

China was cut off from NASA in 2011 after the U.S. Congress passed a spending bill barring collaboration, in part citing the risk of espionage. Planetary exploration was made a national priority in China’s 2016 economic plan, building off three successful lunar missions—the Chang’e 1, 2 and 3—in 2007, 2010 and 2013. Those missions, scientists say, gave China engineering experience, as well as soft-landing technology know-how.

China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon in early 2019. After it successfully conducted a lunar sample return mission in 2020, it revealed that it had done 600 practice landings in simulation facilities on Earth, a sign of its heavy investment in space.

Reaching Mars was the bigger goal and in 2017, Ye Peijian, commander-in-chief of China’s Chang’e series, stressed the need to exploit a window for landing that occurs every 26 months. He lamented lost opportunities in 2013 and 2015 and said in a televised interview that China “absolutely can’t miss” the window that was open last year.

In China, expectations for the landing have been carefully couched—with scientists repeatedly explaining the extreme challenges of the feat. State media highlighted the high stakes for the team behind the mission: One China Daily article in April detailed how a member of the Tianwen-1 team had postponed her wedding three times to focus on the mission.

Michel Blanc,

who was executive director of the International Space Science Institute-Beijing from 2016 to 2018, said he had been impressed by the rapid development of research and infrastructure at the time he was there. Particularly striking, he said, was the development of research in the major labs of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and at top Chinese universities.

Having followed China’s space trajectory for 15 years, Ms. Goswami, the author, said what sets China’s space ambitions apart is its vision of space as an economic opportunity.

“For China, space is a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure,” Ms. Goswami said. “Its goal is to become the lead space nation in 20 years and they will continue marching steadily until they reach that dream.”

Missions to Mars

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