Just when you think China is careless and maybe reckless with its space program – that pesky rocket falling to Earth last weekend as evidence – it pulls off the remarkable feat of landing a spacecraft on Mars.
Saturday’s landing was a first for the country. The U.S. has nine successful Mars landings to its credit, beginning in 1976. The Soviet Union landed on the planet in 1971, but the mission was scrapped when transmission was lost.
An American rover arrived at the red planet in February and, along with a small helicopter, is exploring Mars now.
The China rover will undergo several days’ worth of testing inside the landing module before it heads out onto the Martian surface.
“China has left a footprint on Mars for the first time, an important step for our country’s space exploration,” China’s Xinhua News Agency said via social media.
Xinhua described the precision, explaining that the entry capsule entered the Mars atmosphere 80 miles up, beginning “the riskiest phase of the whole mission.”
A 200 square meter 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 above the surface to identify obstacles before touching down.
“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.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a congratulatory letter to the mission team, called the landing “an important step,” and NASA Associate Administrator 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.”