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Chinese astronaut trio return to Earth after six-month mission

Three Chinese astronauts have returned safely to Earth following a six-month mission on China’s new space station, including the first woman to stay on the Tiangong station. Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu landed in the Dongfeng landing site in northern China at 9:56 p.m. ET (6:56 p.m. PT) on Friday, April 15 (9:56 a.m. Beijing Time on Saturday, April 16).

According to state news agency Xinhua, the three astronauts were examined by medical personnel at the landing site and confirmed to be in good health. They traveled from the station to Earth in just nine hours, using a newly developed “rapid return mode” which makes the journey from orbit to Earth quicker by using a shorter traveling orbit for the first time for a Chinese crewed spacecraft.

Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang (C), Wang Yaping (R) and Ye Guangfu will carry out the Shenzhou-13 spaceflight mission, and Zhai will be the commander, announced the China Manned Space Agency at a press conference on Oct. 14, 2021.
Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang (C), Wang Yaping (R) and Ye Guangfu, the crew of the Shenzhou-13 spaceflight mission. Xinhua

The crew launched in October last year, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert on a Long March-2F rocket. During their stay on the new space station, they worked on scientific research and performed spacewalks twice, with Wang becoming the first Chinese woman to perform a spacewalk. They tested out functions including manual remote operation and module transfer with the station’s robotic arm and tested out the spacewalk hardware like the airlock cabin and EVA suits.

In addition, the astronauts also gave two live classes to schoolchildren on Earth, showing them the microgravity conditions and performing chemistry demonstrations.

The six-month-long mission was China’s longest stay in space to date, breaking the previous record of the Shenzhou 12 mission which lasted three months. Astronauts typically stay on the International Space Station — which China is not involved in — for similar periods of six months (though missions can run longer), so China is demonstrating the viability of its station.

The Tianhe core module of the Tiangong station will soon be joined by two lab modules, Mengtian and Wentian, which are scheduled to be launched on the Tianzhou-4 and Tianzhou-5 cargo spacecraft missions later this year. There are also two more crewed missions planned to launch soon, Shenzhou-14 and Shenzhou-15.

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