Chinese astronauts return after a record-breaking 90 days in space
In another landmark moment for China's fledgling space exploration program, three astronauts sent to work on the country's under-development space station safely returned to Earth on Friday, after spending three months in orbit. Their successful touchdown rounds out the longest crewed mission in the nation's history, in which the taikonauts carried out important tasks critical to the station's long-term operations.
The Tiangong space station where astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo spent 90 days is the third orbiting laboratory launched and operated by China. Like the International Space Station, Tiangong is modular by design, with the bus-sized core capsule named Tianhe launched back in April, followed by a cargo spacecraft in May.
The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft carrying Haisheng, Boming and Hongbo then docked with the Tianhe module in June, commencing a key three-month mission that far exceeds the previous record of 33 days spent in space by the Chinese crew of 2016's Shenzhou-11 mission. Throughout, the trio were tasked with responsibilities such as testing out recycling and waste systems, verifying life support systems, testing a robotic arm, testing of extravehicular spacesuits and completing two spacewalks.
The first of these, and the first by Chinese astronauts in 13 years, came in July and saw Boming and Hongbo install new foot restraints and a working platform on the station's outer, while also repositioning a panoramic camera. The second spacewalk of the mission took place in in August, in which Haisheng and Boming installed pumps and again tweaked the positioning of the panoramic camera.
As reported by state-run news agency Xinhua, a return capsule of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft separated from its orbiting capsule on Friday ahead of a successful landing in Mongolia. The astronauts arrived in good health and were transported by plane to a quarantine facility in Beijing, where they are undergoing medical assessments and will re-acclimatize to gravity and the Earth environment with the help of specialized diets, exercise programs, massage and physical therapy.
Two smaller modules are slated for launch in 2022 that will join the Tianhe module in orbit, with the space station expected to be complete and fully operational by the end of next year. Another cargo spacecraft is scheduled for launch later this year, along with the Shenzhou-13 crewed spaceship that will deliver another trio of astronauts, this time for a six-month stay.