Chinese astronauts return to Earth from nation’s longest mission yet on homegrown space station

The safe landing of the return capsule marked the successful completion of China’s Shenzhou-12 mission

Maroosha Muzaffar
Friday 17 September 2021 08:40
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Related video: Shenzhou-12: China launches first astronauts to new space station

Three Chinese astronauts have returned to Earth after a 90-day stay aboard the nation’s space station, China’s longest mission yet.

Astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo spent 90 days aboard China’s Tianhe space station module since arriving aboard Shenzhou 12 on 17 June.

China’s airspace had issued closure notices on Wednesday indicating that the three-member crew would be returning between 1.14 and 1.44pm local time on Friday.

The Global Times reported that the crew “having lived and worked in orbit for 90 days” has set a “new record of longest space stay in a single flight for Chinese astronauts”.

Referring to the crew as “China’s space heroes”, the local reports celebrated their arrival just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival — one of the most important occasions for family reunions in the Chinese calendar.

China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said on Thursday that the crew, before separation, completed a range of tasks including “transmitting experiment data back to Earth in addition to sorting and transferring of goods which are to remain in orbit, with the help of technicians on the ground”.

The landing took place for the first time near Dongfeng in the Gobi Desert, in Inner Mongolia. The landing area is close to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center from which China’s human spaceflight missions launch, Space.com reported.

The astronauts on Shenzhou 12 have completed two extravehicular activities (EVA), or spacewalks, carried out a range of experiments and sent back some images of the Earth.

Meanwhile, the Tianhe space station will receive a new visitor very soon.

The Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft is expected to launch from Wenchang, south China, around 20 September, reports said. Tianzhou 3 will “deliver supplies for the next crewed mission to the station, Shenzhou 13” — which is set to launch from Jiuquan in October.

In June, the Global Times had reported that the space mission period was of significance as it coincided with the national celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary celebration. It said that “all participants of the mission have drawn experience and strength from the Party history, especially from the development of the space industry under the leadership of the Party”.

It added that all three crew members are “Party members”.

“Shenzhou-12 has demonstrated China’s capability to perform prolonged human spaceflight missions, including lengthy and challenging operations like extravehicular activities and providing necessary ground support,” Andrew Jones, a journalist for SpaceNews who closely follows China’s space industry, was quoted by the Global Times as saying.

Local reports also noted that China will carry out two more space launches for the building of its own space station this year — the Tianzhou-3 cargo spacecraft via a Long March-7 carrier rocket from Wenchang spaceport in Hainan and another manned flight on a Shenzhou-13 spacecraft via a Long March-2F rocket from Jiuquan centre.

The crew were in “good condition” after they touched down at the Dongfeng landing site.

The mission commander Nie Haisheng joked with his fellow crew members saying that “real gold fears no fire”, citing a Chinese proverb, as they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

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