China is planning to land a spacecraft and rover on Mars this month.
If it succeeds, it will become just the third nation to safely touch down on the Red Planet after Russia and the United States.
China's Tianwen-1 orbiter joined spacecraft from five other space agencies circling Mars in February.
Since then, Tianwen-1has been mapping thesurface of Mars and getting ready to land its first rover, Zhurong, named after an ancient god of fire.
While the exact landing date is unclear, i's likely to be mid this month,according to reports from Chinese state media.
China'sMars exploration program may beless mature than NASA's, but the Tianwen-1 mission will makea significant contribution to the science community, saidDavid Flannery of Queensland University of Technology, who works on NASA's Perseverance mission.
"It is a capable mission that has some really ambitious science goals," hesaid.
It's also an important stepping stone to more sophisticatedmissions, in the same way that early NASAmissions such as Pathfinder, which landed the first rover Sojourner in 1997,paved the way for the US Mars program, he said.
All going to plan, Zhurong willjoin three other spacecraft from NASAincluding Perseverance, which landed in February.
But landing on Mars isnotoriously tricky.
"Landing isthe most technically challenging part, it's where most missions fail," Dr Flannery said.
Weighing about 240 kilograms,the car-sized rover has six wheels and is covered by four solar panels, making it look like a "blue butterfly".
Reuters: Tingshu Wang
Onboard are six instruments, including cameras designedto map the terrain, sensors that analyse the chemistry of soil and rocks, ground-penetrating radar that will search for signs ofice water beneath the surface, a weather station, and a magnetic field detector.
While most of these instruments are analogous to those found on NASA rovers, the magnetic field detectorcouldyield some exciting new science, Dr Flannery said.
"This is the first magnetometer sent to the surface of Mars," Dr Flannery said.
The magnetometer on the rover will work with the magnetometer on the Tianwen-1 orbiter to measure Mars' magnetic field.
"One of the big questions in planetary science is, 'What happened to Mars in the past? Why is it so desolate?'" he said.
"One of the ways you can answer that question is by measuring the magnetic properties of rocks that recorded the state of the planetary magnetic field as they were deposited."
The spacecraft will land somewhere in the southern part of a vast plain known as Utopia Planitia.
The 3,300-kilometre-wide plainis the largest impact crater on Mars.
Viking 2, one of NASA's earliest missions, landed in the northern part of the craterin 1976.
The region is one of the easiest places on Mars to land, Dr Flannery said.
"The way to reduce the risk is to choose a landing site where you have very few objects that would cause a problem to land on," he said.
The southern part of Utopia Planitia is mostly flat and smooth with a few sand dunes and boulders.
The plain is also one of the lowest areas on Mars, so there is more atmosphere to help slow down the spacecraft as it descends.
But a safe entry is not the only reason to target this region.
There may also bevast amounts of water ice under apartof the plain, according to mapping by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
"This is essentially a site that would be suitable for China's first human mission to Mars," Dr Flannery said.
Landing on Mars is known as the "seven minutes of terror" for a reason.
Remnants of China's biggest rocket crashinto the Indian Ocean, with the bulk of its components destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, according to media reports.
The spacecraft is on its own from the timeit enters the thin Martian atmosphere travelling at supersonic speeds, until it reaches the surface seven minutes later.
The time delay between Earth and Mars means no-one knows whether it has safely touched down or crashed aka terrabraked until after it hashappened.
NASA recently landed its latest rover Perseverance on the Red Planet using a series of choreographed steps and technologies that included parachutes, rockets and a sky crane.
But China's landing sequence will be slightlydifferent.
For a start, it is detaching from an orbiter 70 kilometres above the surface (Perseverance didn't have an orbiter).
Protected by a cone-shaped heat shield, it will hurtle towards the surface at supersonic speeds before deploying a giant parachute to slow it down.
Then the final stage will rely on rocketsto lower it to the ground, and a system of cameras andlidar navigationto try to avoid obstacles as it's coming in.
Technology used in the landing is based on China'ssuccessful human spaceflight and lunar missions, space journalist Andrew Jones said.
The heat shield and parachute technologiesare used in their Shenzhou space flight program, which has sent six crewed missions into space since 2003.
The enginesand navigation systems are similar to those used in its three successfulChang'e lunar missions.
"They haven'ttested this altogether, but they have had the experience of dealing with these technologies," Mr Jones said.
Getty Images: Barclay Media
If the spacecraftsurvives the landing, then the plan is to roll theZhurong rover off the lander a few days later so it can begin its 90 (Martian) day trip across the surface.
Releasing the rover and navigating across the Red Planet is"no trivial task,"Dr Flannery said.
Meanwhile, the orbiter will continuecircling Mars, acting as a communications relay station for at least one Martian year.
When it comes to Mars, there are no guarantees.
While NASA has successfully landed six spacecraft and a helicopteron Mars since 2003,other spacecraft such as the European Space Agency's (ESA) Schiaparelli lander have failed.
Even though this is China's first attempt to land on Mars, it's already proven it has technological clout when it comes to space missions.
It's the only nation to havelanded on the Moon three times in the past decade, and to have pulled off a complex mission to bring backthe firstrocks from the Moon's surface in more than 40 years.
"What they are doing is extremely challenging and impressive," Mr Jones said.
But even thoughmany of the technologies have been tested for lunar missions, Mars presents different challenges: it has a thin atmosphere, a different gravity field, is much further away, and there isa lag in communications of between 12 and 20 minutes.
"They are dealing with something they haven't dealt with before," Mr Jones said.
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If something does go wrong,there is no backup rover, he added.
"I was wondering if there was going to be a backup mission to this rover, just like there is normally a backup to the lunar missions, but it turns out there isn't, so this is their only chance."
But even if things don't go to plan, they will still learn valuable lessonsfor future missions, such as a planned sample return in 2028 or 2030, he said.
"Even ifthe landing fails, they will learn a lot about what it takes to land on Mars."
For example, he said, the ESA has used data from the failed 2016 mission to inform the Rosalind Franklin rover mission that's due to launch in2022.
"It wouldbe a disappointment [if the landing fails], but I don't think it wouldbe a major blow," Mr Jones said.
"It's very challenging, so I don't think their Mars exploration plans are dependent on this landing."
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