Three Chinese Astronauts Return from Three Month Space Station Mission

Three Chinese Astronauts Return from Three Month Space Station Mission

Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth today after three months aboard China’s space station core module, Tianhe. It is the longest duration mission by any Chinese astronauts and signals the beginning of China’s new space station era.  Tianhe is the first segment of a multi-modular facility and will host expeditions of increasing duration. Though decades behind Russia and the United States, it is a milestone in China’s growing space ambitions.

As usual, China provided very little information about exactly when the Shenzhou-12 crew would return until the final hours. China space watchers inferred the reentry date and time from a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to clear the airspace near the expected landing site around the time the crew reached the three-month mark in the mission, the duration mentioned in the Chinese media when the crew launched on June 17.

Shenzhou-12 crew. Credit: Tweet from Xinhua Science-Technology (@XHscitech)

On Wednesday evening Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), which was Thursday morning Beijing Time (BST), Chinese media reported, after the fact, that the crew had undocked from Tianhe. They performed manuevers around the space station for several hours and reentered today, landing at 1:34 am EDT this morning (1:34 pm local time at the landing site).

China’s human spaceflight program has proceeded at a measured pace since the first Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut, was launched in 2003. Of the 12 Shenzhou spacecraft launched so far, only seven have carried people. Two small space stations, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, were launched in 2011 and 2016 and hosted a total of three crews. The longest crew duration in space until now was 32 days.

Tianhe and Shenzhou-12 are opening a completely new era in China’s human spaceflight program. Launched in April, Tianhe is a 22.5-Metric Ton (MT) module, the first of three that will form the China Space Station (CSS) expected to be completed next year.  At about 60 Metric Tons (MT), CSS still will be much smaller than the 420 MT U.S.-Russian-European-Japanese-Canadian International Space Station (ISS), but a marked improvement over the comparatively tiny 8.5 MT Tiangong-1 and -2 space stations that preceded it.

The Shenzhou-12 crew did two spacewalks, one of which lasted for about 7 hours and the other about 5 hours.  While routine by ISS standards, the only other Chinese spacewalk was for 22 minutes more than a decade ago. China has shared little information about what else the crew did for the past three months, but the China Manned Spaceflight Agency (CMSA) did release a short video (in Chinese) with a few highlights.

Like ISS and three Russian space stations before it, Tianhe is resupplied by cargo spacecraft in the Tianzhou series. The next, Tianzhou-3,  is scheduled for launch three days from now, on September 20, followed by the next crew, which is expected to stay for 6 months. The other two space station modules are planned for launch next year.

China is inviting other countries, including Russia, to send crews to CSS. Russia is a partner in the ISS, but also plans to send cosmonauts to CSS as part of expanded space cooperation with China that includes eventual human missions to the Moon in 2036 and beyond.

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