China becomes first nation since U.S. to land a rover on Mars

Perseverance, Ingenuity, and all the other American bots on Mars now have company. China became the second-ever country to successfully land a rover on the red planet today. Zhurong, named for the god of fire in Chinese folk tales, is roughly the size of NASA’s 2004 Spirit and Opportunity robots.

The China National Space Administration started the Tianwen-1 mission last July around the same time NASA launched its rover and helicopter to Mars. Both spacecrafts arrived at Mars orbit in February, but China remained in orbit until now.

From the New York Times:

A Chinese spacecraft descended through the thin Martian atmosphere and landed safely on a large plain on Saturday morning, state media reported, accomplishing a feat that only two other nations had before. (In the United States, it was still Friday — 7:18 p.m. Eastern time — when the spacecraft touched down.)

The landing follows China’s launch last month of the core module of a new orbiting space station, as well as a successful mission in December that collected nearly four pounds of rocks and soil from the moon and brought it to Earth. Next month, the country plans to send three astronauts into space, inaugurating what could become a regular Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit.

Zhurong touched down at the Utopia Planitia on Mars, which is believed to be a meteor impact site that could have frozen water beneath the surface. Similar to NASA’s Perseverance rover, Zhurong’s mission includes searching for signs of ancient life that could have once existed on Mars.

China also wants to learn more about the distribution of ice on Mars, and international partners include the European Space Agency, Argentina, France, and Austria. While U.S. law prohibits the United States from working with China in space, NASA’s top scientist Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen shared an optimistic message following the news:

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