BEIJING – China says its Mars probe and accompanying rover are expected to land on the red planet sometime between Saturday and Wednesday Beijing time.
The China National Space Administration said in a brief notice that the Tianwen-1 probe has collected a large amount of scientific data since entering Mars orbit on Feb. 10 and the window for setting down on an icy area of the planet known as Utopia Planitia was determined by “current flying conditions.”
Named after the Chinese god of fire, Zhurong, the rover will stay in the lander for diagnostics tests for several days before rolling down a ramp to begin exploring for signs of life. The mission is the first attempt at a soft landing on Mars by a Chinese spacecraft.
Only the United States has successfully landed and operated a spacecraft on Mars — nine times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976 and, most recently, with the Perseverance rover in February. China will attempt to become the second.
The Perseverance rover and a tiny helicopter are currently exploring Mars. NASA expects the rover to collect its first sample in July for return to Earth in a decade.
China this year launched the initial module of a permanent space station, although the uncontrolled return to Earth of the launch rocket drew some criticism. The launch of the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, module is the first of 11 missions to build and provision the station and send up a three-person crew by the end of next year.
China also recently brought back lunar samples, the first by any country’s space program since the 1970s, and also landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored far side.