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This file image made available by the China National Space Administration on Dec. 16, 2020, shows the Tianwen-1 probe en route to Mars.The Associated Press

A Chinese spacecraft descended through the thin Martian atmosphere and landed safely on a large plain on Saturday morning, state media reported, accomplishing a feat that only two other nations have before. (In the United States, it was still Friday – 7:18 p.m. Eastern time – when the spacecraft touched down.)

The landing follows China’s launch last month of the core module of a new orbiting space station and a successful mission in December that collected nearly 4 pounds of rocks and soil from the moon and brought them back to Earth. Next month, the country’s space program plans to send three astronauts back to space, inaugurating what could become a regular Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit.

Just by arriving at Mars and orbiting the planet in February, China’s space program confirmed its place among the top tier of agencies exploring the solar system. Now that it has executed a landing – with a deployment of a rover still to come – it has established itself as a principal contender in what some view as a new era of space competition.

The Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, said that the mission had “spectacularly conquered a new major milestone” with its landing.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, offered his congratulations to the Chinese. “I look forward to the important contributions this mission will make to humanity’s understanding of the Red Planet,” he wrote on Twitter.

Until Friday, the China National Space Administration had said little about its plans for the landing, in keeping with its usual secrecy involving operations. The news of the impending landing, however, began to spill out on social media and in official news reports, signalling that the landing was imminent.

In a virtual conference organized by the social media platform Weibo on Friday, several scientists debated the reasons to explore Mars, with one saying that the planet’s evolution could hold lessons for changes happening on Earth now.

“The purpose is to better protect our Earth itself,” Jiao Weixin, a professor of geophysics at Peking University, said in the forum. “I think this is the most fundamental purpose of our deep space exploration.”

The Chinese space agency has also highlighted international collaboration on the Tianwen-1 mission including contributions from the Europe Space Agency, Argentina, France and Austria.

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