Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth safely on Saturday after spending a record six months aboard China’s new space station, doubling the previous stay of the country’s longest single flight in space.
The Shenzhou-13 capsule carrying astronauts Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu touched down successfully at 9:56 am local time in the Dongfeng landing site in Gobi Desert, North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
The medical team confirmed that the crew members are in good health, marking the full success of the Shenzhou-13 manned spaceflight mission, the Global Times newspaper reported.
The astronauts spent six months on the Tiangong space station and nearly doubled the previous record of China’s longest single space flight mission of 92 days set by the Shenzhou-12, it said.
Apart from the long-term stay in space, the mission has set many records and firsts in the country’s manned space history, it said.
The Shenzhou spacecraft developer, China Academy of Spacecraft Technology (CAST), said in a statement that the Shenzhou-13 mission also explored emergency mission mechanisms for the first time, with the Shenzhou-14 manned spacecraft and Long March-2F Y14 rocket in standby position right after the launch of the Shenzhou-13 and Long March-2F Y13.
This enabled a potential space rescue of the Shenzhou-13 taikonauts in case of any malfunction preventing the spacecraft from returning to Earth.
Compared to the return trip of the Shenzhou-12 mission which took approximately 28 hours, the Shenzhou-13 carried out a rapid return manoeuvre which took just eight hours.
The CAST said that the Shenzhou-13 orbit plan was streamlined to five orbits compared to the 18 of the Shenzhou-12 mission, and it was designed to further enhance return efficiency, shorten the ground monitoring and make it more comfortable for the returning astronauts.
The probe used three parachutes to slow down from a speed of 200 metres a second to 7 metres a second as it approached the Earth.
The Shenzhou 13 crew began their mission in October last year and spent six months in orbit.
The crew performed two spacewalks to install components for the external mechanical arm, adjust cameras and conduct tests. In November, Wang became the first Chinese woman to have performed a spacewalk.
Researchers will now launch a full evaluation of key technologies used on the space station before launching the next phase of the Tiangong mission.
An unmanned supply mission is expected next month before the Shenzhou 14 crew travel to the space station to oversee the docking of two space laboratories, named Wentian and Mengtian, to complete the configuration of the T-shaped space station by the end of the year.
The China Manned Space Agency said last month that the crews for the next two missions have been identified and were in training, but their names have yet to be announced.
Besides scientific missions, the crew also gave two live science lectures from the space station, during which they conducted various experiments and answered questions from students watching the class on Earth, CGTN, an international English-language Chinese state-run cable TV news service based in Beijing, said.
With the advance in space communication technologies, the crew members were able to entertain themselves on the internet, talking to their families and friends frequently and having space-Earth interactions on a regular basis, the Global Times reported.
Pang Zhihao, a senior space expert, told the Global Times on Saturday that normally it would take around three months for astronauts returning from space to recover their strength.
However, it could take a bit longer for the Shenzhou-13 crew, as they stayed in space for such a long period, Pang said.