We don’t know if China’s Mars rover touched down on the red planet — yet

An artist’s impression of the three spacecraft China sent to Mars in July 2020. 

Nature Astronomy

Has China become the third nation in human history to safely land on the surface of Mars? We don’t know yet.

On Friday afternoon, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which had been orbiting Mars since February, may have released a shielded capsule to the surface of the red planet. Contained within is the rover Zhurong, strapped to the back of a landing vehicle that will eventually deploy the rover to the surface. 

The spacecraft’s scheduled landing time, according to Chinese space watchers, was 4:11 p.m. PT. However, it’s unclear whether China even attempted the landing today. The only official report from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) suggests a landing attempt would be made between May 15 and May 19, Beijing time.

There may have been celebrations and high-fives exchanged in CNSA’s mission control, but the hoots or hollers we’re accustomed to seeing during NASA landings weren’t televised. Instead, amateur astronomers listened out for the telltale radio signals being beamed back to Earth from the spacecraft to try and discern whether the mission was even happening.  

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, notes it could still be hours before China says anything.

When we get confirmation from the CNSA or Chinese state media, we’ll be sure to update this post. 

The last 10 months have been busy for Martian exploration. 

Three spacecraft, including Tianwen-1, launched to Mars in July 2020, taking advantage of Earth’s proximity to the red planet. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which will survey Mars’ atmosphere from space, inserted itself into orbit in February. Not long after, NASA’s now-famous rolling rover, Perseverance, its history-making flying companion Ingenuity, reached the surface of Mars, landing in an ancient lakebed that may have once been home to Martian life.

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