BEIJING • Anticipation mounted yesterday for the landing on Mars of China's Zhurong rover, a few months behind the United States' latest probe to the Red Planet, as Beijing presses ahead with its increasingly bold space ambitions.
The launch of China's Mars probe Tianwen-1 last July marked a major milestone in its space programme, which Beijing views as a sign of its rising global stature and technological might.
The spacecraft, which entered Mars' orbit in February, has now reached the "crucial touchdown stage" as it prepares to land its rover in a vast northern lava plain known as the Utopia Planitia, the state-run tabloid Global Times said yesterday.
Chinese officials have been tight-lipped on the timing of the touchdown but the landing window of mid-May to mid-June has opened, according to China's National Space Administration.
Speculation about a landing today has been rife on social media after a top spaceflight expert estimated the rover - named after a mythological Chinese fire god - would reach the surface in the morning Beijing time.
Chinese Academy of Sciences member Ye Peijian, a key researcher on China's lunar programme, said during a Thursday lecture at the Beijing Institute of Technology that the rover would land at about 7.11am today, local media reported.
The tricky landing has been described as "seven minutes of terror" because it happens faster than radio signals can reach Earth from Mars, meaning communications are limited.
Several US, Russian and European attempts to land rovers on Mars have failed in the past, most recently in 2016 with the crash-landing of the Schiaparelli joint Russian-European spacecraft.
The latest successful arrival came in February when US space agency Nasa landed its rover Perseverance, which has since been exploring the planet.
The US rover launched a small robotic helicopter on Mars which was the first ever powered flight on another planet.
Six-wheeled, solar-powered and weighing roughly 240kg, the Chinese rover will collect and analyse rock samples from Mars' surface.
It is expected to spend around three months there.
If successful, China will be the world's first country to carry out an orbiting, landing and roving operation during its first mission to Mars.
It will become just the third nation to safely touch down on the Red Planet after Russia and the US.