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China lands rover on Mars in 'milestone' achievement

China successfully landed a rover-carrying spacecraft on Mars for the first time, state-run media reported Saturday, marking another major victory for the country's ambitious space program that aims to rival NASA.

China now joins the United States as the only other nations to have successfully landed and operated rovers on Mars, and Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed a "milestone" achievement.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, launched from the Chinese province of Hainan in July, has been orbiting Mars since February while looking for potential landing sites. Early Saturday, it released an entry capsule containing a lander and a rover that began to plummet through the Mars atmosphere, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The entry capsule safely touched down in a flat plane on Mars' surface at 7:18 a.m. Beijing time (7:18 p.m. Friday Eastern time), though it took about an hour for ground controllers to determine that the mission had been a success, state media reported. During the perilous journey through Mars' atmosphere, the craft had to operate autonomously, and signals could not be transmitted back to ground control until the robotic rover had landed and unfolded its solar panels and antenna.

While China has landed craft on the moon before - including the first probe to touch down on the far side of the moon in January 2019 - the Mars mission represents a significant leap and showcases Beijing's huge investments in its space program. The United States has managed just nine successful Mars landings in the course of more than four decades, and the Soviet Union landed a probe on the planet in 1971 only to immediately lose contact.

"The motherland and people will always remember your outstanding feats!" Xi said in a congratulatory message to the Tianwen-1 mission team on Saturday.

The rover will spend the next three months studying the surface of Mars for signs of water or ice that could point to the planet's ability to sustain life. NASA's Perseverance rover mission, which is also looking for evidence of life on Mars, landed on the Red Planet in February.

"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," Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate director of NASA's science mission directorate, tweeted in a congratulatory message to the Tianwen-1 team.

China's aspirations for its burgeoning space program include establishing its own space station that will continue to operate after the International Space Station is dismantled, and partnering with Russia to build a lunar base.

The successful landing on Mars comes just days after the China National Space Administration faced international rebukes for allowing a massive rocket to fall to earth on an uncontrolled trajectory.

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