A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after a 90-day stay on their country’s first space station in China’s longest mission to date.
Ni Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed on the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft just after 1:30 p.m. (0530 GMT) on Thursday morning after undocked from the space station.
State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert, where it was met by helicopters and off-road vehicles. Minutes later, a team of technicians began to open the hatch of the capsule, which appeared to be unharmed.
The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and sat on chairs just outside the capsule to give them time to adjust to Earth’s gravity after three months of being in a weightless environment. All three were scheduled to fly to Beijing on Friday.
“With China’s growing power and increasing levels of Chinese technology, I strongly believe there will be more astronauts who will set new records,” Mission Commander Ni told CCTV.
After launching on June 17, the three astronauts went on two spacewalks, deployed a 10-metre (33-foot) mechanical arm, and had a video call with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
While few details have been made public by China’s military that runs the space program, the astronaut trio is expected to be brought on a 90-day mission to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional.
The government has neither announced the names of the next set of astronauts nor the launch date of Shenzhou-13.
China has sent 14 astronauts to space since 2003, when it became only the third country to do so on its own, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
China’s space program has progressed at a measured pace and has largely avoided many of the problems that characterized the US and Russian programs, which were locked in intense competition during the early days of space flight.
This has made it a source of enormous national pride, complementing the country’s economic, technological, military and diplomatic prominence in recent years under the steadfast rule of the Communist Party and current leader Xi Jinping.
China began its own space station program in the 1990s, after being kicked out of the International Space Station due to US objections to the secrecy and military support of the Chinese space program.
China has proceeded with uncrewed missions by simultaneously putting a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon, and in December, the Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s. done.
China also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars this year, with the Jurong rover looking for evidence of life.
Another program calls for the collection of samples from an asteroid, an area in which Japan’s rival space program has made progress of late.
China is planning to send another mission to bring back lunar samples in 2024 and is pursuing a possible crewed mission to the Moon and eventually building a scientific base there, although such projects No timeline has been proposed. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.