China invited observers to a successful test of its Mars lander as the country pushes for inclusion in more global space projects.
The demonstration of hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities was conducted at a site outside Beijing simulating conditions on the Red Planet, where the pull of gravity is about a third of that on Earth.
China plans to launch a lander and rover to Mars next year to explore parts of the planet in detail.
Beijing’s burgeoning space programme achieved a lunar milestone earlier this year by landing a probe on the mysterious far side of the Moon. It has developed rapidly, especially since it conducted its first crewed mission in 2003, and has sought co-operation with space agencies in Europe and elsewhere.
The US has banned most space co-operation with China out of national security concerns, keeping Beijing from participating in the International Space Station. Despite that, China’s ambitions continue to grow as it seeks to rival the US, Russia and Europe in space and cement its position as a regional and global power.
It is gradually constructing its own larger, more permanent space station in which it has invited foreign participation.
The lander on Thursday successfully avoided ground obstacles during a simulated low-gravity descent, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the space programme’s main contractor.
The refrigerator-sized craft was lowered gently on 36 cables through the air for about a minute and used onboard jets spraying rust-coloured fumes to alter its downward course.
“After the probe is launched, it will take about 7 months to reach Mars, and the final procedure of landing will only last about 7 minutes, which is the most difficult and the most risky part of the whole mission,” said the Mars mission’s chief designer, Zhang Rongqiao, standing before the 140 metre-tall testing facility.
Recent rover crashes on the Moon by Israel and India highlight the difficulties of safe landings from space.
The remote Comprehensive Testing Ground for Landing on Extraterrestrial Bodies run by CASC lies an hour north of the Great Wall from Beijing.
Guests at Thursday’s event came from 19 countries and included the ambassadors of Brazil, France and Italy.
“This event is the first public appearance of China’s Mars exploration mission, also an important measure for China to pragmatically carry out space international exchanges and co-operation,” the China National Space Administration said in a news release.