Chinese crew landing caps record-setting day in human spaceflight

Shenzhou 12 astronauts Tang Hongbo, Liu Boming, and Nie Haisheng outside their landing capsule Friday. Credit: Xinhua

Three Chinese astronauts landed in the remote Gobi Desert of northwestern China Friday, returning to Earth after a three-month mission on the new Tiangong space station, and ending a historic day in spaceflight that set a new record with 14 people in low Earth orbit.

With the return of China’s Shenzhou 12 crew Friday, 11 people remained in orbit — seven on the International Space Station and four on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission. The launch of Inspiration4 Wednesday night from Kennedy Space Center briefly brought the total number of humans in orbit 14.

The new record of 14 people in orbit is one more than the previous mark of 13, set on multiple occasions since 1995.

The Shenzhou 12 mission descended under parachute to the Dongfeng landing site in the Gobi Desert Friday. Touchdown occurred at 1:34 a.m. EDT (0534 GMT; 1:34 p.m. Beijing time), according to the China Manned Space Agency.

Astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo landed after 92 days in orbit, China’s longest human space mission to date. Shenzhou 12, the first crew mission to China’s Tiangong space station, was a “complete success,” the China Manned Space Agency said in a statement.

Chinese state-run television broadcast the return live, showing infrared tracking views of the Shenzhou 12 crew capsule streaking through the atmosphere. A trail of super-heated plasma extended behind the capsule as it plunged back to Earth.

The re-entry and landing followed the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft’s undocking from China’s Tiangong space station at 8:56 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0056 GMT Thursday).

After backing away from the station, the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft performed a “radial rendezvous” test, a circumnavigation maneuver to fly the ship from a position in front of the space station to a point below the complex.

The test demonstrated an approach to a different Tiangong docking port, that will be used by future missions to link up with the space station.

Shenzhou 12 halted its radial approach before docking, as planned, then flew away from the station as the three-man crew readied for re-entry.

The spacecraft fired two orbit control thrusters for a deorbit burn less than an hour before landing. Before the deorbit burn, the landing capsule jettisoned its orbital habitation module, which will remain in space until aerodynamic drag brings it back into the atmosphere to burn up on re-entry.

After the deorbit burn, Shenzhou 12’s propulsion section separated, leaving the landing capsule — protected by a heat shield — to fall back into the atmosphere.

The mission’s return zone in the Inner Mongolia region, known as Dongfeng, is a new location for Shenzhou landings. The Dongfeng landing field is near the Jiuquan launch center, where Shenzhou 12 blasted off June 16. Previous Shenzhou missions parachuted into a different part of Inner Mongolia known as Siziwang Banner.

Nie, a former Chinese Air Force fighter pilot and commander of the Shenzhou 12 mission, wrapped up his third flight into orbit with Friday’s landing. He has logged 100 days in orbit on three missions, making him the most experienced space flier in China’s astronaut corps.

Liu Boming completed his second mission into space. First-time space flier Tang Hongbo was the third crew member.

“I believe with the continuous improvement in China’s strength, and also China’s capacity in science and technology, in the future we can expect more astronauts from China,” Nie said through an interpreter during a post-landing interview on Chinese state television.

“They will make new breakthroughs, and they will create new records. As Chinese astronauts, we will step up to the plate, and we will continue making contributions to China’s manned space mission.”

Tang said he felt good after three months in space.

“We have completed a lot of tasks,” Tang said after landing Friday. “We have engaged in many scientific experiments, and we have been astonished by the beauty of outer space.

“At this point in time, I miss my family,” said Tang, a colonel in the Chinese Air Force. “I miss my fellow soldiers and colleagues. I want to tell my parents, Daddy and Mom, I’m back … I’m in great shape.”

Shenzhou 12 was the seventh crewed spaceflight in China’s space program since 2003. The Shenzhou 12 astronauts docked with the Tiangong space station about six hours after launch, becoming the first crew to enter the new Chinese space lab.

The first element of the Tiangong space station launched in April. The Tianhe core module contains a regenerative lift support system, which produces breathing oxygen through electrolysis and recycles urine to make drinking water.

The Tianhe module also astronaut living quarters, medical equipment, a command and control element, and an airlock and exterior handrails for spacewalks. There are three sleeping berths — one for each astronaut — and one toilet on the Tianhe core module, Chinese officials said.

The core module of the Chinese space station also has a treadmill and a stationary bicycle for astronauts to get some exercise.

A resupply spacecraft named Tianzhou 2 launched in May and docked with the Tianhe module, pre-positioning supplies and provisions to support the Shenzhou 12 crew once they arrived in June.

During their three months on Tiangong, the Shenzhou 12 astronauts completed two spacewalks July 4 and Aug. 20 totaling more than 12 hours. The astronauts also tested the space station’s robotic arm and performed science experiments, according to Chinese state media.

After the return of Shenzhou 12, Chinese officials plan to launch the Tianzhou 3 cargo ship to the Tiangong space station Monday on a Long March 7 rocket from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island.

The Tianzhou 2 spacecraft, currently attached to the aft port of the Tianhe core module, is expected to soon detach and move to the forward port vacated by Shenzhou 12. Tianzhou 2 will perform in-orbit refueling tests there.

The next mission to launch to the space station after the Tianzhou cargo ship will be the piloted Shenzhou 13 flight, set for launch in October. The Shenzhou 13 mission is expected to last up to six months, breaking the Chinese spaceflight endurance record set by Shenzhou 12.

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