In just over a fortnight, China has achieved an extraordinary amount in space.
While many overseas news outlets in recent days focused on an “out of control” Chinese rocket that re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and harmlessly landed in the Indian Ocean, the space station module that it launched is now orbiting the planet.
It’s a major step towards China independently running its own space station – partly the result of the US locking it out of the ageing International Space station, which is due to be decommissioned within a few years.
But that was only the undercard.
As millions of Australians were waking to weekend breakfasts, property inspections and children’s sports on Saturday morning, dozens of Chinese engineers and scientists were nervously waiting from ground control as a Chinese spacecraft lost contact for around 17 minutes after landing on Mars.
The spacecraft, known as Tianwen1, had already gone through what state television described as “nine minutes of terror”, a nerve-wracking period as the lander approached the Martian surface at a pace too fast for the signals to Earth to keep up with.
The compact car-sized lander then spent 17 minutes unfolding its antenna and solar panels before it could send signals from the Red Planet confirming its success.
Not only had China become the third country to successfully land a rover on Mars, but it was only the second to successfully maintain communications with it.
The six-wheeled robot called Zhurong is due to explore for the next 90 days, putting Chinese tyre marks on a planet that has proven too difficult for European attempts.
In a single mission, a country that had previously never been near Mars managed to orbit, land and deliver a rover.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping hailed the success of the ambitious mission in a message to all those involved.
“Your outstanding achievement will forever be etched in the memories of the motherland and the people” he said, according to government media.
Pictures beamed out across the country from ground control showed some engineers in tears.
China’s state TV broke into special coverage titled “Hello Mars” to celebrate what has been rapid progress for the country’s military-run space program.
“It’s one of the most complicated things China has ever done in spaceflight. And it comes relatively shortly after China launched its first large space station module,” said Dr Morris Jones, a Sydney-based space writer.
“So, in between the space station, the Mars landing and the fact that China has recently retrieved samples from the moon via another robot lander, this is a sign that China is now a first-rate space power.”
Hits and misses
While China’s arrival as a space power may seem recent, it has been quietly ticking off goals and making capability improvements since the mid-1960s.
“For much of that time, China’s space program has been conducted out of the limelight, partly due to secrecy but also because much of what they were doing wasn’t headline-grabbing,” Dr Jones said.
“Launching a weather satellite isn’t as sexy as landing on Mars,” he said.
There have also been plenty of setbacks, including two unmanned rocket launch failures last year, although they paled in comparison to the high number of successful launches.
“China today is doing what the US and the Soviet Union was doing in the 1970s – sinking a lot of money and people into space exploration,” said Brad Tucker, a physicist at ANU.
“They’re really trying to show their equal footing with the other big powers, the US and Russia.”
China’s Tiangong space station module that was launched at the end of April is part of a plan to house three astronauts in a space station by the end of next year.
There are a series of additional launches required before China completes it, but if all goes to plan, it will become the only functioning space station, once the joint US-Russian-European-Japanese-Canadian International Space Station ends its mission, as planned some time this decade.
China is also taking steps towards a manned moon landing and has already placed two rovers on the moon.
But Mars is the real forefront of space exploration.
“It’s a huge milestone – it’s really hard to land a little car on a planet hundreds of millions of kilometres away completely remotely,” Dr Tucker said.
The US has landed five rovers on Mars, including Perseverance – a one-tonne car-sized rover that landed in February and carried the first mini helicopter to ever fly on Mars.
The Soviet Union was the only other state to land a rover in 1971, but it lost contact almost immediately.
“China is really catching up to Russia and is not that far behind the US,” Dr Tucker said.
“There is still a long way to go before the first manned mission to Mars, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a Chinese mission.
“The US is no longer guaranteed to have it.”