China just tested out its brand-new facility for simulating Mars landings, marking a big step in the nation's planned march to the Red Planet.
The facility in northern China's Hebei Province includes a tower nearly 460 feet (140 meters) tall, a servo system and a Martian surface simulation area.
The highly touted test yesterday (Nov. 14) is prelude to China launching a Mars mission in 2020 — a project that aims to complete orbiting, landing and roving all in one go, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
The recent experiment simulated the gravity of Mars, which is about three-eighths that of Earth, to test the design of the lander, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Ambassadors and diplomats from 19 countries including France, Italy and Brazil, as well as representatives from the European Union, the African Union and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization were invited to watch the experiment, according to Xinhua.
China needed to build the new facility to simulate landing procedures under Mars' gravitational acceleration, Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of China’s first Mars exploration mission, told Xinhua.
A red platform in the middle of the pylons is fixed by 36 steel cables. Through precise control, Xinhua reported, the platform is able to simulate the Martian gravitational environment.
On the ground underneath the pylon tower, engineers created slopes and craters to mimic the environment of the Martian surface.
According to Xinhua, yesterday's test verified multiple procedures, including the lander’s separation from the main body of the spacecraft from a 230-foot (70 m) altitude; hovering at 220 feet (67 m) above the surface and searching for a safe spot to touch down; and descending to 65 feet (20 m) above the surface in obstacle-avoidance mode.
Zhang Kejian, administrator of the CNSA, told Xinhua that China’s Mars exploration program has progressed well since its official kickoff in 2016. The hovering and obstacle avoidance test for the Mars lander is a crucial step for the project, Xinhua reported.
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Leonard David is author of the recently released book, "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.