China just successfully landed its first rover on Mars, becoming only the second nation to do so. Space.com reports: The Tianwen-1 mission, China’s first interplanetary endeavor, reached the surface of the Red Planet Friday (May 14) at approximately 7:11 p.m. EDT (2311 GMT), though Chinese space officials have not yet confirmed the exact time and location of touchdown. Tianwen-1 (which translates to “Heavenly Questions”) arrived in Mars’ orbit in February after launching to the Red Planet on a Long March 5 rocket in July 2020. After circling the Red Planet for more than three months, the Tianwen-1 lander, with the rover attached, separated from the orbiter to begin its plunge toward the planet’s surface. Once the lander and rover entered Mars’ atmosphere, the spacecraft endured a similar procedure to the “seven minutes of terror” that NASA’s Mars rovers have experienced when attempting soft landings on Mars.
A heat shield protected the spacecraft during the fiery descent, after which the mission safely parachuted down to the Utopia Planitia region, a plain inside of an enormous impact basin in the planet’s northern hemisphere. Much like during NASA’s Perseverance rover landing, Tianwen-1’s landing platform fired some small, downward-facing rocket engines to slow down during the last few seconds of its descent. China’s Mars rover, called Zhurong after an ancient fire god in Chinese mythology, will part ways with the lander by driving down a foldable ramp. Once it has deployed, the rover is expected to spend at least 90 Mars days (or about 93 Earth days; a day on Mars lasts about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth) roving around on Mars to study the planet’s composition and look for signs of water ice. Utopia Planitia is believed to contain vast amounts of water ice beneath the surface. It’s also where NASA’s Viking 2 mission touched down in 1976.