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China Probe Becomes Second in Two Days to Reach Mars

FILE - The Long March 5 Y-4 rocket, carrying an unmanned Mars probe of the Tianwen-1 mission, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Wenchang, Hainan Province, China, July 23, 2020.

Chinese state media reported Wednesday a spacecraft known as Tianwen-1 has successfully entered orbit around Mars, the first step in an ambitious mission that includes landing a rover on the surface of the planet.

In a statement, China’s National Space Administration said the spacecraft conducted a 15-minute burn of its thrusters, slowing it down enough to be pulled into Mars’ gravity, making it the country’s first artificial satellite orbiting the planet.

The space agency says that in May or June, the Tianwen-1 will attempt to land a capsule carrying a 240-kilogram rover onto the surface of Mars, in a massive plain in the northern hemisphere known as Utopia Planitia. If all goes as planned, the rover will conduct a 90-day mission studying soil, looking for indications of water, and searching for signs of ancient life.

The Chinese probe arrived after one from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around the red planet to study its atmosphere and weather, and just more than a week before a spacecraft from the U.S. space agency, NASA, carrying its own rover — and a small helicopter — is scheduled to arrive.

The missions were planned for this time to take advantage of a unique alignment of Earth and Mars.

The two newest probes join six other active orbiting spacecraft above Mars launched by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and India.