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Chinese probe touches down safely on Mars

China scored another first for its space program today with the safe landing of the Tianwen-1 mission’s lander and rover on Mars.

“It is the first time China has landed a probe on a planet other than Earth,” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

The lander-rover spacecraft was brought to Mars aboard China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, which was launched last July and made its Red Planet rendezvous in February. For weeks, scientists used the orbiter to scout out potential landing sites, and settled on Utopia Planitia, the same plain where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

The entry capsule hurtled through Mars’ thin atmosphere about three hours after its deployment from the orbiter. On the way down, the capsule made use of a heat shield, a parachute and a retrorocket to slow down its descent from a speed of more than 10,000 mph, Xinhua said.

Xinhua said the lander autonomously selected a “relatively flat area” for touchdown at about 7 a.m. May 15 Beijing time (4 p.m. PT May 14). Monitors in Macau said the landing site was within 25 miles (40 kilometers) of its preordained target.

“Each step had only one chance, and the actions were closely linked. If there had been any flaw, the landing would have failed,” Geng Yan, an official at the Chinese National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, told Xinhua.

China is now the third nation to execute a soft landing on Mars, after Russia (whose Mars 3 probe lasted 110 seconds on the surface in 1971 before going out of contact) and the United States (which has notched nine successful landings).

Once the lander gets settled, the 530-pound Zhurong rover (named after a Chinese fire god) will roll down a ramp and begin a 90-day primary mission to study the area’s geology, climate and magnetic field. The six-wheeled, solar-powered robot is equipped with ground-penetrating radar to probe the Martian subsurface for signs of water.

Tianwen-1’s successful arrival at Mars, and Zhurong’s descent to the surface, builds on other recent Chinese space achievements — including last year’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission.

NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, congratulated his Chinese counterparts in a tweet:

 

 

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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