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China becomes second country to drive a rover on Mars

It is the first country to successfully orbit, land and deploy a vehicle on the Red Planet on its initial try

A true-to-size model of China's Zhurong rover on display at a museum in Beijing earlier this year. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

China became the world’s second nation to deploy a vehicle on the surface of Mars when a solar-powered rover began an exploration for potential evidence of life.

The Zhurong rover started roaming the Red Planet late Saturday morning Beijing time, Chinese authorities said. This comes a week after China joined the United States and the former Soviet Union in being the only countries to have landed a mission on Mars, which scientists say is a more technically difficult feat than doing the same on the moon. (The Soviet Union lost contact with its Mars probe seconds after landing.)

China is the only country to have successfully orbited, landed and deployed a land vehicle on its debut Mars mission, according to Reuters. Zhurong, which is named after the Chinese god of fire, is equipped with ground-penetrative radar and a topography camera for a mission that is scheduled for 90 days. Other solar-powered rovers have survived for longer.

The Chinese rover is situated on Utopia Planitia, a plain on Mars that scientists see as a relatively smooth spot for a first landing. The United States has previously used the basin to land a mission.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated China on the Zhurong landing last week. In testimony before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, he used its example to urge Congress to “get serious” about investing in space, SpaceNews reported.

NASA operates three landed missions on Mars, as well as a helicopter that will soon make its sixth flight on the planet. The European Space Agency and its Russian counterpart, the Roscosmos Space Corporation, plan to jointly land a rover on Mars next year.

Beijing was heavily criticized earlier this month after debris from a Chinese rocket fell into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. There were concerns at the time that parts from the Long March rocket might fall over populated areas; there were no reports of significant damage.