After seven months of space travel, three months orbiting and “nine minutes of terror”, China has become the third country in the world to safely land a rover on Mars.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) said in a statement that its rover Zhu Rong – named after the Chinese mythical god of fire and war – had successfully landed on Mars on Saturday after “nine minutes of terror”.

 “The scientific research team confirmed via the telemetry signal sent by the “Zhu Rong” Mars rover that on May 15th, the Tianwen-1 Lander successfully landed in the pre-selected landing area in the Utopia Plain of southern Mars,” CNSA said in the statement.

Zhu Rong’s landing comes as the US and China race to become the global technological leader.

In the area of space tech, the US has historically been the industry leader but China is catching up.

In recent years, the nation has launched the world’s first quantum satellite, made a soft landing on the far side of the moon and brought lunar samples back using a purely robotic mission. It has also started building its own space station, South China Morning Post reported.

Before China, only the United States and the former Soviet Union had managed a successful soft landing on the red planet 319 million kilometres from the Earth.

A soft landing means the spacecraft performs a gentle touchdown on the planet’s surface without any significant damage, which usually requires complicated deceleration and control procedures.

If Zhu Rong succeeds in its mission to collect and send back information about the Martian surface over the next 90 days, China would become only the second country to accomplish the task after the US.

While the Soviet Union landed its Mars 3 rover successfully in 1971, it stopped sending signals soon after.

Landing on the red planet – which is known for its harsh environment and in particular its extremely powerful dust storms – has been a huge challenge with only half of all trips succeeding.

It can take up to 20 minutes for a radio signal to travel between Mars and Earth.

The landing process usually takes only about seven to nine minutes but falls in the blackout period, prompting Nasa’s nickname “seven minutes of terror” during which the ground team cannot guide or direct the descending craft and must leave it on its own to perform the landing process without human intervention

To date, Nasa has successfully landed three Mars probes, the latest being the Perseverance which landed in February

Zhu Rong is part of China’s first Mars probe, Tianwen-1, which was launched in July 2020 with three parts – orbiter, lander and rover.

The probe reached Mars and started orbiting in February.

Protected by a heat shield, China’s Mars landing craft carrying the rover had to detach itself from the orbiter 70km above the surface, before hurtling towards the surface at a speed of nearly 5km per second.

This was different from Nasa’s Perseverance, which did not have an orbiter and relied on a series of pre-choreographed steps, including parachutes, rockets and a sky crane to land.

A CNSA researcher said Zhu Rong’s Mars landing would be “much harder” than China’s lunar rover Jade Rabbit, which landed on the moon’s surface in 2013, because the much greater distance from Earth made radio transmission more difficult.

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