China’s Zhurong Rover Lands on Mars

The achievement cements China as a major player in modern space exploration and could soon deliver discoveries about Mars’ geology

surface of Mars
Mars as photographed by China’s Tianwen-1 probe after it entered the planet's orbit in February. CNSA / Xinhua

China’s Zhurong rover has successfully landed on Mars, marking the first time a country other than the United States has safely touched down on Martian soil, reports Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

“China’s successful Mars landing demonstrates to the world that there is another country with advanced interplanetary space capacities,” Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst and co-author of a new book on space exploration, tells Steven Lee Myers and Kenneth Chang of the New York Times.

China's Zhurong Rover Lands on Mars
A graphic illustrating the lander that delivered China's rover to the Martian surface. Xinhua / Lu Zhe

Zhurong arrived on the surface of the Red Planet aboard the Tianwen-1 spacecraft’s lander on the morning of May 15 (Beijing time). In a mostly autonomous landing sequence, the lander used a massive parachute and rocket boosters to slow itself down and finally hover roughly 300 feet above the surface to select a flat spot to touch down, reports Smriti Mallapaty for Nature.

"Each step had only one chance, and the actions were closely linked. If there had been any flaw, the landing would have failed," Geng Yan, an official at the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration, tells Xinhua.

The landing took place in a large Martian plain known as Utopia Planitia, a nearly 2,000-mile-wide crater that formed billions of years ago when something crashed into the planet. Utopia Planitia is largely flat and features volcanic rocks. “It’s a good place to try a first landing,” David Flannery, an astrobiologist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia who works on Perseverance, tells Nature. NASA’s 1976 Viking 2 mission also chose Utopia Planitia as its landing site.

Per Nature, Utopia Planitia also has some scientific intrigue. Its volcanic materials might show traces of freezing and thawing ice, and past studies of the region have also suggested there may be a layer of permafrost below the surface. Though Zhurong is primarily aimed at demonstrating and testing China’s technical prowess on Mars, the rover will use ground penetrating radar, a spectrometer and a magnetometer to explore the region’s geology and potentially to uncover signs of water.

If Zhurong discovers ice, it would highlight Utopia Planitia as a potential location for a human presence on Mars by providing a potential source of water.

China’s last bid for the Martian surface was Yinghuo-1, which was destroyed almost ten years ago when the Russian rocket ferrying it into space failed and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, according to the Times.

Since landing, Zhurong has unfurled the solar panels that will power its six-wheeled mission and the rover has sent signals back to Earth confirming its systems are online, reports Jonathan Amos for BBC News. Zhurong is the second rover to reach the surface of Mars this year, behind NASA’s Perseverance rover, amid a flurry of activity around the Red Planet that saw spacecraft from the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates all enter the planet’s orbit in early 2021.

Zhurong is the latest success of China’s ambitious space program, which has also collected surface samples from the moon and currently has a robotic rover exploring the far side of the lunar surface. Earlier this month however, China’s fast-moving efforts to establish a space station drew criticism from NASA when its 40,000-pound Long March 5B rocket took an uncontrolled tumble through Earth’s atmosphere and splashed into the Indian Ocean, reported Jackie Wattles earlier this month for CNN.