Jin Livang / AP
China landed a spacecraft on Mars for the first time on Saturday, a technically challenging feat more difficult than landing on the moon, the final step forward for its ambitious space goals.
The plans require the rover to remain in the landing for several days for diagnostic tests before descending the ramp to explore an area of Mars known as Utopia Mountain. He will join an American rover that arrived on the red planet in February.
The first landing on Mars in China is after the launch last month of the main part of what will be a permanent space station and a mission that returns rocks from the moon at the end of last year.
“China has left its mark on Mars for the first time, an important step in our country’s space exploration,” the official Xinhua news agency said, announcing the landing on one of its social media accounts.
The United States has had nine successful landings on Mars since 1976. The Soviet Union landed on the planet in 1971, but the mission failed after the spacecraft stopped transmitting information shortly after touching.
A rover and a small helicopter from the American landing party are currently exploring Mars in February. NASA expects the rover to assemble its first sample in July to return to Earth in a decade.
China has landed on the moon before, but landing on Mars is a much more difficult endeavor. Spaceships use shields to protect against scorching heat as they enter the Martian atmosphere, and use both retro-rockets and parachutes to slow down enough to prevent a crash. Parachutes and missiles must be positioned at the right time to land at the designated location. Only mini-retro rockets are needed to land on the moon, and only parachutes are enough to return to Earth.
Xinhua said the entry capsule entered Mars’ atmosphere at a height of 125 kilometers (80 miles), initiating the so-called “most risky phase of the entire mission.”
A 200-square-meter (2,150-square-meter) parachute was deployed and later dropped, and then a retro rocket was fired to slow the vessel’s speed to almost zero, Xinhua said. The vessel rose about 100 meters (330 feet) above the surface to identify obstacles before touching four buffer legs.
“Each step had only one chance and the actions were closely linked. If there was any flaw, the landing would have failed,” said Gun Yang, a Chinese National Space Administration official, according to Xinhua.
The touchdown was at 7:18 a.m. Beijing time (11:18 p.m. Friday GMT; 7:18 p.m. EDT), although it took more than an hour before ground controllers could confirm the landing was successful, Xinhua said the rover had to to open its solar panels and antenna, and then it took more than 17 minutes for its signals to travel the distance between Mars and Earth.
In a congratulatory letter to the mission team, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the landing “an important step in our country’s interplanetary exploration, recognizing the leap from Earth-Moon to the planetary system and leaving the Chinese imprint on Mars for the first time.” … The homeland and the people will always remember your exceptional feats! “
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s assistant administrator, tweeted, saying, “Together with the global scientific community, I look forward to the important contribution that this mission will make to humanity’s understanding of the Red Planet.”
The Chinese landing on Mars was the leading topic on Weibo, a leading social media platform, as people expressed both excitement and pride.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since February, when it arrived after a 6 1/2 month journey from Earth. Xinhua described the mission as China’s first planetary survey.
The rover, named after the Chinese god of fire Jurong, is expected to be deployed for 90 days to look for evidence of life. Approximately the size of a small car, it has ground-penetrating radar, laser and sensors to measure the atmosphere and magnetic field.
China’s space program is more cautious than the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of its space race.
The launch of the main module for the space station in China in April is the first of 11 planned missions to build and secure the station and send a crew of three by the end of next year. While the module was successfully launched, the uncontrolled return of the rocket to Earth provoked international criticism, including from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
China has said it wants to land people on the moon and possibly build a science base there. No timeline for these projects has been published. A spacecraft is also reportedly being developed.
Associated Press researcher Henry Howe, news assistant Caroline Chen and video journalist Sam McNeill contributed to the report.