China's First Mars Landing Imminent As Zhurong Rover Prepares to Hit Red Planet

China is preparing to land its first rover on the surface of Mars. The authorities in Beijing have not specified exactly when the landing is scheduled, but it could be as soon as Friday, May 14.

The China National Space Administration has named its rover Zhurong, after the god of fire in ancient Chinese mythology. The CNSA announced the name last month, saying it echoed "the Chinese name of the red planet, Huoxing, meaning the planet of fire."

The rover has been in orbit around Mars since February aboard the Tianwen-1 spacecraft, China's first fully domestic Mars mission.

Now Tianwen-1 will send a lander and rover to the surface of the planet. If successful, China will become only the second country to operate a rover on Mars for an extended period—after the U.S.

On Friday morning, the CNSA released a statement on the landing plans for the Zhurong rover.

It read: "According to the current flight situation, the Tianwen-1 probe [will] choose an opportunity to land on the Martian Utopia Plain from the early morning of May 15 to May 19, Beijing time."

The time in Beijing is 12 hours ahead of EDT, so the landing could occur on May 14 for observers in the United States.

Before the space agency's statement, there had been speculation on Twitter that a landing time of 23:11 UTC (19:11 EDT) had been given, according to a source quoting Ye Peijian, an official at the China Academy of Space Technology.

So here comes the #SevenMinutesOfTerror With Chinese Characteristics.

Tomorrow it is.

According to a source quoting CAST's chief adviser of Interplanetary Exploration Ye Peijian in a conference this morning, Tianwen-1's lander/rover will land on May 14 23:11 UTC! pic.twitter.com/whmiBmPr6N

— Cosmic Penguin (@Cosmic_Penguin) May 13, 2021

If and when Zhurong touches down successfully on the Martian surface, it will join two active NASA rovers, Curiosity and Perseverance.

The Zhurong rover aims to study Mars' magnetic field, see what the planet's surface is made from and research the weather, among other things. It comes equipped with a radar that could detect water beneath the planet's surface—the first rover to conduct such a search from the ground, according to the Planetary Society non-profit based in Pasadena, California.

Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult. According to an article in the journal Nature, engineers have to pre-program the landing procedure into the spacecraft because the distance between Earth and Mars is so great that communication signals can't travel back and forth quickly enough to allow engineers to control the landing.

So far, the U.S. is the only country to have operated a rover on Mars for an extended period of time. The Soviet Union successfully landed a probe on Mars in 1971, but it died seconds later.

Mars
A stock image showing a 3D rendering of Mars. China is sending a rover called Zhurong to the planet. Petmal/Getty