Chinese astronauts return to Earth after longest crewed space mission to date

·2-min read

A group of three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Saturday after 183 days, the longest crewed space mission to date for China’s ambitious space programme.

State broadcaster CCTV reported on Saturday that the group – comprising two men and one woman – landed safely in a small Shenzhou 13 capsule at 9.56am Beijing time (2.56am BST) after spending over six months on the Tianhe core module of China’s Tiangong, or “heavenly palace”, space station.

Previously, the longest crewed space mission China had sent to Tiangong was for a period of three months.

The astronauts – Wang Yaping, Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guanfu – each told CCTV they were “feeling good” after the six-month mission, after the Shenzhou 13’s landing in the Gobi desert in the northern region of Inner Mongolia.

During the mission, Wang became the first Chinese woman to walk in space, and the three also beamed back physics lessons from space for high school students.

Tiangong’s core module Tianhe was launched in April last year. Beijing has laid out plans to complete construction of the space station this year by adding two more modules, but the authorities are yet to announce a date for launching the next Tiangong crew.

On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping visited the launch site in Wenchang, on the southern island of Hainan, from which the Tianhe module was fired into orbit.

“Persist in pursuing the frontiers of world aerospace development and the major strategic needs of national aerospace,” Mr Xi told staff, who were all dressed in military uniform.

China is excluded from the International Space Station over US concerns that its space programme is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army.

China was the third nation to launch an astronaut into space on its own after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

China launched its first astronaut into space in 2003 and landed robot rovers on the moon in 2013 and on Mars last year. Officials have discussed a possible crewed mission to the moon.

The government announced in 2020 that China’s first reusable spacecraft had landed following a successful test flight, but no photos or details of the vehicle have been released.

Additional reporting by agencies