On Saturday, China made history by landing a rover-carrying spacecraft on Mars for the first time, marking another significant achievement for the country's ambitious space programme, which aims to rival NASA.
China and the United States are the only two countries that have successfully landed and run rovers on Mars, and Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed the achievement as a "milestone."
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which was launched in July from the Chinese province of Hainan, had been orbiting Mars since February, surveying possible landing sites. According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, it unveiled an entry capsule containing a lander and a rover that started to plunge through Mars' atmosphere early Saturday.
The entry capsule successfully landed at 7:18 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, but it took about an hour for ground controllers to assess that the mission was a success, according to state media. The craft had to act autonomously during the precarious trip through the Martian atmosphere, and signals could not be transmitted back to ground control until the robotic rover landed and unfolded its solar panels and antenna.
While China has landed craft on the moon, including the first probe to land on the moon's far side in January 2019, the Mars mission is a major step forward and demonstrates Beijing's massive investments in its space programme. Over the course of more than four decades, the United States has managed nine successful Mars landings, and the Soviet Union landed a probe on the planet in 1971, only to lose touch with it immediately.
“The motherland and people will never forget your excellent achievements!” On Saturday, Xi wrote a letter of congratulations to the Tianwen-1 mission team.
The rover will spend the next three months observing the surface of Mars for signs of water or ice, which may indicate the presence of an atmosphere capable of supporting life. In February, NASA's Perseverance rover mission, which is also searching for signs of life on Mars, landed on the Red Planet.
In a message of congratulations to the Tianwen-1 team, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of NASA's science mission directorate, said, "Together with the global science community, I look forward to the important contributions this project will make to humanity's understanding of the Red Planet."
China's space programme ambitions include building its own space station that will continue to function after the International Space Station is decommissioned, as well as collaborating with Russia to create a lunar base.
The successful Mars landing comes just days after the China National Space Administration was chastised internationally for a giant rocket that crashed down to Earth on an uncontrolled trajectory.