BEIJING (AP) - China landed a spacecraft on Mars for the first time on Saturday in the latest advance for its space program, state media said.
Plans call for a rover to stay in the lander for a few days of diagnostic tests before rolling down a ramp to explore an icy area of Mars known as Utopia Planitia. It will join an American rover that arrived at the red planet in February.
"China has left a footprint on Mars for the first time, an important step for our country’s space exploration," the official Xinhua News Agency said in announcing the landing on one of its social media accounts.
The U.S. has had nine successful landings on Mars since 1976. The Soviet Union landed on the planet in 1971, but the mission failed after the craft stopped transmitting information soon after touchdown.
A rover and a tiny helicopter from the American landing in February are currently exploring Mars. NASA expects the rover to collect its first sample in July for return to Earth in a decade.
China has landed on the moon before but landing on Mars is a much more difficult undertaking because the planet has an extremely thin atmosphere.
Spacecraft must use heat shields for protection from the searing heat of reentry and both retro-rockets and parachutes to slow enough to prevent a crash landing. The parachutes and rockets must be deployed at precise times to land at the designated spot.
Only mini-retro rockets are required for a moon landing, and parachutes alone are sufficient for returning to Earth, which has a much bigger atmosphere.
Touchdown was at 7:18 a.m. Beijing time (23:18 GMT; 7:18 p.m. EDT), according to the State Administration of Science. Technology and Industry for National Defense.
The distance between Earth and Mars caused a delay for mission control in Beijing to confirm successful deployment of a conical heat shield, rockets and a giant parachute to control the craft's descent.
NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted his congratulations, saying, "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."
China's Mars landing was the top trending topic on Weibo, a leading social media platform, as people expressed both excitement and pride at the achievement.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since February, when it arrived after a 6 1/2-month journey from Earth. Xinhua described the mission as China's first planetary exploration.
The rover, named after the Chinese god of fire Zhurong, is expected to be deployed for 90 days to search for evidence of life. About the size of a small car, it has ground-penetrating radar, a laser, and sensors to gauge the atmosphere and magnetic sphere.
China's space program has proceeded in a more cautious manner than the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the height of their space race.
The launch of the main module for its space station in April is the first of 11 planned missions to build and provision the station and send up a three-person crew by the end of next year. While successful, the uncontrolled return to Earth of the launch rocket drew international criticism including from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
China has said it wants to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there. No timeline has been released for such projects. A space plane is also reportedly under development.