China’s “Zhurong” rover, part of the country’s ambitious space program to send a probe to Mars, is set to attempt the difficult landing on the Red Planet within the next five days, according to Beijing’s space agency.
If successful, the tricky touchdown would come a few months after America’s latest Mars probe, as Beijing presses ahead with its progressively bold space ambitions.
“Based on current flight conditions, the Tianwen-1 probe plans to land… between early morning Saturday and Wednesday Beijing time,” the China National Space Administration said via online statement.
Last July’s launch of the Tianwen-1 Mars probe marked a significant milestone in China’s space program, which Beijing sees as evidence of the country’s growing global stature and technological might.
The spacecraft, which entered Mars’ orbit in February, has reached a “critical touchdown stage,” as per the state-run tabloid Global Times on Friday. It will crash land in the Utopia Planitia, a vast northern lava plain.
After a top spaceflight expert estimated the rover, named after a mythological Chinese fire god, would enter the atmosphere in the morning Beijing time, speculation about a Saturday landing has been rife on social media.
The complicated landing procedure has been dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” because it occurs faster than radio signals from Mars can reach Earth, limiting communications.
Several previous attempts by the US, Russia, and Europe to land rovers on Mars have failed, most recently in 2016 with the crash-landing of the Schiaparelli joint Russian-European spacecraft.
The most recent successful arrival occurred in February when NASA landed its rover Perseverance, which has since been exploring the planet.
The United States rover launched a small robotic helicopter on Mars, making it the first powered flight on another planet. The Chinese rover, which is six-wheeled, solar-powered, and weighs about 240 kilograms, will collect and analyze rock samples from Mars’ surface. It is expected to stay there for three months.
If the mission is successful, China will be the world’s first country to carry out an orbiting, landing, and roving operation on Mars. After Russia and the United States, it will be only the third country to land on Mars safely.
The country has come a long way in its race to catch up to the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of space exploration experience. Last month, China successfully launched the first module of its new space station, intending to crew it by 2022 and eventually send humans to the Moon.
Last week, a section of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket disintegrated over the Indian Ocean, resulting in an uncontrolled return to Earth.
That drew criticism from the United States and other countries as a violation of etiquette governing the return of space debris to Earth, with officials claiming the remnants posed a risk to life and property.