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China Lands on Mars for the 1st Time in Another Step Forward for Its Space Program

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China landed a spacecraft on Mars for the first time on Saturday in the latest step forward for its ambitious goals in space.

Plans call for a rover to stay in the lander for a few days of diagnostic tests before rolling down a ramp to explore an area of Mars known as Utopia Planitia.

It will join an American rover that arrived at the red planet in February.

China’s first Mars landing follows its launch last month of the main section of what will be a permanent space station and a mission that brought back rocks from the moon late last year.

“China has left a footprint on Mars for the first time, an important step for our country’s space exploration,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency said in announcing the landing on one of its social media accounts.

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The U.S. has had nine successful landings on Mars since 1976. The Soviet Union landed on the planet in 1971, but the mission failed after the craft stopped transmitting information soon after touchdown.

A rover and a tiny helicopter from the American landing in February are currently exploring Mars. NASA expects the rover to collect its first sample in July for return to Earth in a decade.

China has landed on the moon before, but landing on Mars is a much more difficult undertaking.

Spacecraft must be protected from the searing heat of entering the Martian atmosphere and use both retro-rockets and parachutes to slow down enough to prevent a crash landing. The parachutes and rockets must be deployed precisely to land at the designated spot.

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Xinhua said the entry capsule entered Mars’ atmosphere at an altitude of 125 kilometers (80 miles), initiating what it called “the riskiest phase of the whole mission.”

A 200 square meter (2,150 square foot) parachute was deployed and later jettisoned, and then a retro-rocket was fired to slow the speed of the craft to almost zero, Xinhua said. The craft hovered about 100 meters (330 feet) above the surface to identify obstacles before touching down on four buffer legs.

“Each step had only one chance, and the actions were closely linked. If there had been any flaw, the landing would have failed,” said Geng Yan, an official at the China National Space Administration, according to Xinhua.

Touchdown was at 7:18 a.m. Beijing time (7:18 p.m. EDT), although more than an hour passed before ground controllers could confirm the landing was a success, Xinhua said. The rover had to open its solar panels and antenna, and then it took more than 17 minutes for its signals to traverse the distance between Mars and Earth.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a congratulatory letter to the mission team, called the landing “an important step in our country’s interplanetary exploration journey. … The motherland and people will always remember your outstanding feats!”

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NASA official Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted his congratulations, saying, “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.”

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since February, when it arrived after a 6 1/2-month journey from Earth.

The rover, named after the Chinese god of fire Zhurong, is expected to be deployed for 90 days to search for evidence of life. About the size of a small car, it has ground-penetrating radar, a laser, and sensors to gauge the atmosphere and magnetic sphere.

The launch of the main module for China’s space station in April is the first of 11 planned missions to build and provision the station and send up a three-person crew by the end of next year.

While the module was successfully launched, the uncontrolled return to Earth of the rocket drew international criticism, including from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

China has said it wants to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there. No timeline has been released for these projects. A space plane is also reportedly under development.

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