3 Chinese astronauts return to Earth after 6-month mission

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BEIJING — Three Chinese astronauts landed in a northern desert on Sunday after working for six months to complete construction of Tiangong Station, a symbol of the country’s ambitious space program, state TV reported.

A capsule carrying commander Chen Dong and astronauts Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe landed at a landing pad in north China’s Gobi Desert around 20:10 (1210 GMT), China Central Television reported.

Before departure, they overlapped for almost five days with three colleagues arriving Wednesday on the Shenzhou-15 mission for their own six-month stay, marking the first time China had had six astronauts in space at the same time. The station’s third and final module was docked with the station this month.

About 40 minutes after landing, the astronauts were carried out of the capsule by medical personnel. They were all smiling and seemed in good spirits as they waved happily to the workers at the landing site.

“I am very happy to see the completion of the basic structure of the Chinese space station after six busy and fulfilling months in space,” said Chen, who was the first to exit the capsule. “Like meteors we returned to the embrace of the motherland.”

Liu, another astronaut, said she was moved to see relatives and her compatriots.

The three astronauts were part of the Shenzhou 14 mission, which launched in June. After arriving at Tiangong, Chen, Liu, and Cai oversaw five rendezvous and dockings with various spacecraft, including one carrying the third of the station’s three modules.

They also conducted three spacewalks, broadcast a live science lecture from the station, and conducted a series of experiments.

The Tiangong is part of official Chinese plans for a permanent human presence in orbit.

China built its own station after being banned from the International Space Station, largely due to US objections to the Chinese space programs’ close ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.

With the arrival of the Shenzhou-15 mission, the station was expanded to its maximum weight of 100 tons.

Without an attached spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons – a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only space station still operational when the International Space Station retires later in the decade, as expected.

In 2003, China became the third government, after the former Soviet Union and the United States, to send an astronaut into orbit alone.

China has also had unmanned mission successes: its rover Yutu 2 was the first to explore the little-known far side of the moon. Its Chang’e 5 probe also returned moon rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.

Officials are reported to be considering an eventual manned mission to the Moon, although no timeline has been offered.

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