Skip to main content

China successfully lands a rover on Mars for the first time

A black-and-white picture of Mars taken by Tianwen 1, the first snapshot from the Chinese craft.
A black-and-white image of Mars taken by Tianwen-1. It’s the first snapshot from the Chinese craft. China National Space Administration

China has become just the third nation to land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars, joining the U.S. and Russia in that achievement. China’s Zhurong rover, named after a traditional Chinese fire god, has touched down on the martian surface, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) confirmed on the morning of Saturday, May 15.

The rover is part of the Tianwen-1 mission, which consists of an orbiter, a probe, and a lander. The mission was launched in summer last year, and took seven months to complete its journey to the red planet. It arrived at Mars in February this year, and since then the spacecraft has been performing operations such as capturing images of Mars, like the one shown above.

Believe it or not, traveling to Mars is actually the easy part of such a mission. The truly hard part is landing on the planet’s surface, as landers must contend with factors like the planet’s thin atmosphere, its variable dust storms, and a communication delay betweenMars and Earth. This delay makes it impossible for people in mission control on Earth to control a craft in real time as it approaches the planet, so the landing must be performed autonomously.

To slow its speed as the lander approached the surface, it used both a parachute and a retrorocket in its own “seven minutes of terror” as it moved through the atmosphere. It then landed in the Utopia Planitia area, a large impact basin, part of which was exploded by NASA’s Viking 2 lander in the 1970s.

This makes China the first country to make a successful landing on Mars on its first mission to Mars.

According to China’s state news agency Xinhua, President Xi Jinping said he was sending “warm congratulations and sincere greetings to all members who have participated in the Mars exploration mission.”

The rover will now begin its three-month mission to explore the Utopia Planitia area, where it will be searching for surface and subsurface ice. The mission will involve both the rover and the orbiter working in concert to create a map of water ice, with the orbiter focusing on the planet’s polar regions.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
See Mars’s beautiful Jezero Crater from the air in flyover video
Still from the video of Jezero crater created by merging data from various Mars orbiting spacecraft.

If you're feeling in need of some travel to broaden your horizons but you don't have the option to leave home right now, the European Space Agency (ESA) has something special to offer you: A virtual flight over the famous Jezero Crater on Mars.

Visit Jezero Crater on Mars in this flyover created using orbiter data

Read more
How Europe’s ExoMars rover plans to get to Mars without Russia
ESA’s Rosalind Franklin twin rover is back on its wheels and drilled down 1.7 metres into a martian-like ground in Italy – about 25 times deeper than any other rover has ever attempted on Mars. The test rover, known as Amalia, also collected samples for analysis under the watchful eye of European science teams.

Space missions get scuppered for all kinds of reasons, from engineering problems to budget issues. But the ExoMars mission, Europe and Russia's joint plan to send a rover to Mars, faced a complicated political and ethical issue when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. The European Space Agency (ESA) had been working with the Russian space agency Roscomos on the mission but this partnership was soon suspended over what ESA called the "human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine."

Without Roscosmos, the Rosalind Franklin rover was left without a launcher and it was not clear whether the rover would be able to launch at all. But loath to give up on the project, ESA decided it would build its own lander and get the rover to Mars hopefully by 2030. This week, ESA shared more information about the plans for the mission and how it is continuing with testing for the rover.

Read more
How much fuel is left in this 20-year-old Mars orbiter?
NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter is depicted in this illustration. The mission team spent most of 2021 assessing how much propellant is left on the orbiter, concluding it has enough to stay active through at least 2025.

Designing, building, and launching a spacecraft is hugely expensive. That's why NASA missions to Mars are designed with the hope that they'll last as long as possible -- like the famous Opportunity rover which was supposed to last for 90 days and managed to keep going for 15 years. The longer a mission can keep running, the more data it can collect, and the more we can learn from it.

That's true for the orbiters which travel around Mars as well as the rovers which explore its surface, like the Mars Odyssey spacecraft which was launched in 2001 and has been in orbit around Mars for more than 20 years. But the orbiter can't keep going forever as it will eventually run out of fuel, so figuring out exactly how much fuel is left is important -- but it also turned out to be more complicated than the NASA engineers were expecting.

Read more