China Mars Rover Animation Appears to Copy NASA Video Shot for Shot

China made history last week when it became only the second nation to land a spacecraft on Mars, but an official animation of the event is now under scrutiny after producers at the Chinese space program appeared to have borrowed heavily from an old NASA video.

The two-minute video carried by China's major state news outlets depicted several critical moments, including the lander's separation from the Mars orbiter and its controlled descent onto the surface of the Red Planet on May 15, Beijing time.

According to the state-owned China News Service, the footage was produced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation's (CASC) Fifth Academy. CASC is the main contractor for the space program run by the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

China Mars Landing Video Under Scrutiny
China Mars Landing Video Under Scrutiny
Screen grabs taken from NASA's 2011 and CASC's 2021 animations depict landers entering Mars' atmosphere.

Viewers watching the video—released the day after the successful arrival of Chinese Mars rover Zhurong—noticed a number of similarities between it and an animation produced by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2011.

The JPL clip was released in June that year in anticipation of Curiosity's arrival on Mars in August 2012. Despite the crisper animation quality in the Chinese production, many scenes from the NASA clip appeared to have inspired last week's illustration of Zhurong landing on the planet.

China Mars Landing Video Under Scrutiny
China Mars Landing Video Under Scrutiny
Screen grabs taken from NASA's 2011 and CASC's 2021 animations depict landers descending toward Mars' surface.

A comparison of the two videos showed similar animation effects, timing, composition and lighting. The probes themselves looked different, but certain aspects of the footage appeared the same, including their angle of approach as well as the framing during and after the lander's parachute sequence.

The alleged use of the NASA video as a reference was not lost on some Chinese social media users, who commented on the coincidences and went as far as to accuse the country of plagiarism.

China Mars Landing Video Under Scrutiny
China Mars Landing Video Under Scrutiny
Screen grabs taken from NASA's 2011 and CASC's 2021 animations depict landers descending toward Mars' surface.

"This is a simple copy-paste job of NASA JPL's June 2011 video. To publish a video like this is to humiliate the Chinese space program," one user wrote.

A second added: "You can't just copy the entire script like that!"

A NASA spokesperson told Newsweek: "NASA's imagery is made freely available for use by the public." The statement offered no additional comment on the question of plagiarism.

CNSA has yet to respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

The origin of the footage, however, will not take away from China's most recent scientific achievement, which was celebrated around the globe.

Zhurong, named after the god of fire in ancient Chinese mythology, was launched in July 2020 as part of the Tianwen-1 mission. It is carrying 13 instruments and will investigate the Martian geology within Utopia Planitia, a terrain in the planet's northern hemisphere.

Discoveries made on the Red Planet are expected to be shared with NASA scientists who are also operating their latest Mars visitor, Perseverance.

In April, China sent the main section of its space station into orbit in yet another sign of its burgeoning space program. The 22.5-metric-ton Tianhe carries the station's control systems, life support and living quarters.

The space station—named Tiangong—is expected to be finished by 2022. It will be one-fifth the size of the International Space Station and can host three crew members.

This story has been updated with a brief statement by NASA.

China Video Borrows From NASA Mars Mission
These screen grabs, taken from animations produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (R) in 2011 and Chinese space program contractor, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (L) in 2021, depict landers entering Mars' atmosphere and descending toward the planet's surface. China News Service/NASA