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China lands rover on Mars in ‘milestone’ achievement

China became the second nation to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars on May 14, according to the state news agency. The United States was the first. (Video: Reuters)

China successfully landed a rover-carrying spacecraft on Mars for the first time, state-run media reported Saturday, marking another major victory for the country’s ambitious space program that aims to rival NASA.

China and the United States are the only nations to have successfully landed and operated rovers on Mars, and Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed a “milestone” achievement.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, launched from the Chinese province of Hainan in July, had been orbiting Mars since February while surveying for potential landing sites. Early Saturday, it released an entry capsule containing a lander and a rover that began to plummet through the Mars atmosphere, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The entry capsule safely touched down at 7:18 p.m. Eastern time Friday, though it took about an hour for ground controllers to determine that the mission had been a success, state media reported. During the perilous journey through the Martian atmosphere, the craft had to operate autonomously, and signals could not be transmitted back to ground control until the robotic rover had landed and unfolded its solar panels and antenna.

Although China has landed craft on the moon — including the first probe to touch down on the far side of the moon, in January 2019 — the Mars mission is a significant leap and showcases Beijing’s huge investments in its space program. The United States has managed nine successful Mars landings in the course of more than four decades, and the Soviet Union landed a probe on the planet in 1971, only to immediately lose contact with it.

“The motherland and people will always remember your outstanding feats!” Xi said in a congratulatory message to the Tianwen-1 mission team Saturday.

The rover will spend the next three months studying the surface of Mars for signs of water or ice that could point to an environment that might sustain life. NASA’s Perseverance rover mission, which also is looking for evidence of life on Mars, landed on the Red Planet in February.

“Together with the global science community, I look forward to the important contributions this mission will make to humanity’s understanding of the Red Planet,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate director of NASA’s science mission directorate, tweeted in a congratulatory message to the Tianwen-1 team.

China’s aspirations for its burgeoning space program include establishing its own space station that will continue to operate after the International Space Station is dismantled, and partnering with Russia to build a lunar base.

The successful landing on Mars comes just days after the China National Space Administration faced international rebukes over a massive rocket that fell back to Earth on an uncontrolled trajectory.

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