On Friday, Chinese astronauts returned to Earth after completing the country’s longest-ever crewed mission, marking a new milestone in Beijing’s quest to become a major space power.
At 1:35 p.m. local time, the capsule carrying the three astronauts was suspended on a parachute and landed in the Gobi Desert (05:35 GMT).
According to state broadcaster CCTV, the crew of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft was in “excellent health” after the 90-day journey, which set a new record for China.
A medical crew and support people aboard a helicopter rushed to a landing location in the Gobi Desert, according to live footage. A member of the team placed a Chinese national flag beside the capsule.
The taikonauts, as Chinese astronauts are known, would be quarantined for 14 days before returning home “because their immune systems may have weakened following the long voyage,” according to Huang Weifen, chief designer of China’s manned space project.
The mission was part of China’s well-publicized space program, which has already resulted in the country landing a rover on Mars and sending probes to the moon.
The launch of Beijing’s first crewed mission in nearly five years, on July 1, coincided with the ruling Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, and was the centerpiece of a vast propaganda campaign.
The crew stayed at the Tiangong space station for 90 days, doing spacewalks and conducting scientific experiments.
“The successful completion of the mission […] open the way for future regular missions and the use of the [Chinese space] station (CSS),” said Chen Lan, an independent analyst at Go Taikonauts, a firm that focuses on China’s space program.
“This is a critical and much-needed start for the CSS.”
Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace,” is projected to last at least ten years.
Nie Haisheng, a veteran air force pilot in the People’s Liberation Army who has already participated in two space missions, is in charge of the mission.
The two other astronauts, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, are also in the military.
Before the end of the year, the Chinese space agency plans 11 launches, including three more crewed missions that will transport two lab modules to expand the 70-tonne station.
In recent years, China has thrown billions of dollars into its military-led space program in an attempt to catch up to the United States and Russia.
Beijing’s space ambitions have been bolstered in part by a US ban on its astronauts participating in the International Space Station (ISS), a joint venture of the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan.
The ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States has stated that it may be operational beyond 2028.
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, China is still technically behind the United States.
He stated, “The fundamental US lead in human spaceflight is in complete experience.” “Two spacewalks, for example, are not the same as hundreds of ISS spacewalks. It’s all about the quantity.