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China lands rover on Mars, marking step in Xi's 'space dream'

Zhurong will spend three months on the red planet searching for signs of life

The planet Mars, shown here in an undated NASA image, is one focus of China's space program. (NASA/Reuters)

SHANGHAI -- China successfully landed a rover on the planet Mars Saturday, becoming the second country to do so after the U.S. and moving a step closer to bringing President Xi Jinping's "space dream" of self-reliance and independent innovation into reality.

The semi-autonomous six-wheeled vehicle named Zhurong, after a god of fire in Chinese mythology, touched down on the southern region of Utopia Planitia -- the largest recognized plain on the red planet -- on Saturday morning, according to state news agency Xinhua.

In a congratulatory message, Xi said the landing marked an important advance from lunar to interplanetary exploration.

"Your courage to challenge and pursue excellence has enabled our country to join the advanced rank in planetary exploration," he said. "I hope you will continue to implement scientific exploration of Mars, uphold self-reliance in the pursuit of science and technology, ... accelerate [China's progress] as a space power in order to explore the mysteries of the universe and contribute to the peace and development of mankind."

The feat, deemed "the most challenging," by mission chief Cui Xiaofeng in an interview with state media China Daily last month, is part of an exploration that will take one Martian year, or about 687 days. The Tianwen-1 Mission, named after a "Questions to Heaven" ancient poem, includes orbiting, landing and roving Mars in one go.

Zhurong was launched aboard the Long March 5 rocket on July 23 and entered Mars orbit on Feb. 10. 

Barring any trouble, the 1.85-meter tall, 240 kg rover -- which can reach speeds of 200 meters per hour -- will spend about three months searching for signs of life.

The distance of Mars from Earth upon Zhurong's landing is about 318 million km, Chinese authorities estimated, far enough away that it will take about 18 minutes for scientists in Beijing to receive a signal from the rover if all goes according to plan.

It is equipped with magnetometer to measure magnetic field, multispectral cameras to survey planet surface and ground-penetrating radar to detect water and ice some 100 meters underground.

Although started in 1959 under the then leader Mao Zedong, China's space exploration program has accelerated since 2011 with "markedly enhanced capacity in independent innovation," the government said in a 2016 white paper.

The space program includes manned spaceflight, lunar probe, the launch of Beidou Navigation System and most recently, the launch of the core module for its maiden space station construction.

The paper outlined China's vision to turn into a "space power in all respects," a deed that has been personally directed by Xi himself after coming into power in 2012. Beijing's space ambitions have caused a stir in Washington, which this week heavily criticized China for debris from an enormous rocket it launched that fell back to Earth. 

"Exploring the vast universe, developing space programs and becoming an aerospace power have always been the dream we've been striving for," Xi said in speech to mark China's first Space Day on April 24, 2016.

China's long-term goal in its Mars probe includes collecting samples, asteroid exploration and eventually exploring Jupiter in 2030.

The hashtag Zhurong topped social media app Weibo search on Saturday morning with over 7 million views hours after the news broke. Some commenters struck a defiantly nationalistic note.

A post by Phmark0311 read: "Congratulations. China and Western countries are on the same track now. China is running forward. Instead of keeping up, Western countries are ganging up to restrain China. They will also accuse China of not abiding by the rules. This is the work of the weak@U.S. embassy in China."

Zhurong is the second rover on Mars following the U.S. rover Perseverance, which has been roaming the red planet since February on a similar mission to find signs of life. It is expected to collect rock samples in July before wrapping up the mission in mid-October.

Besides China and the U.S., the United Arab Emirates also launched a Mars probe in July with a spacecraft orbiting the red planet since February. These countries are making use of a launch window, which is available every 26 months when the distance between Earth and Mars is at its shortest.

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