Chinese astronaut trio have returned to Earth after 90 days aboard their country’s first space station in China’s longest mission to date

BEIJING – A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after spending 90 days aboard their country’s first space station on China’s longest mission to date.

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed in the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft just after 1:30 p.m. (05:30 GMT) after undocking from the space station Thursday morning.

State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuted into the Gobi Desert, where it was encountered by helicopters and all-terrain vehicles. A few minutes later, a team of technicians began to open the hatch of the capsule, which appeared to be intact.

“With the growing strength of China and the increasing level of Chinese technology, I firmly believe that there will be even more astronauts who will set new records,” mission commander Nie told CCTV.

After the launch on June 17, the three astronauts performed two spacewalks, deployed a 10-meter (33-foot) mechanical arm, and had a video call with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

Although few details have been made public by the Chinese military, which manages the space program, trios of astronauts are expected to fly 90-day missions to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional. .

The government has not announced the names of the next series of astronauts or the launch date of the Shenzhou-13.

China has sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.

The Chinese space program has progressed at a measured pace and largely avoided many of the problems that plagued the US and Russian programs which were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of spaceflight.

This has made it a source of enormous national pride, complementing the country’s economic, technological, military and diplomatic rise in recent years under the firm rule of the Communist Party and current leader Xi Jinping.

China embarked on its own space station program in the 1990s after being banned from the International Space Station, largely due to US objections to China’s space program secrecy and military support.

China simultaneously continued its unmanned missions, placing a rover on the unexplored far side of the moon, and in December the Chang’e 5 probe brought moon rocks back to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.

This year, China also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, along with its Zhurong rover which ventured in search of evidence of life.

China is also planning to send another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and is pursuing a possible crewed mission to the moon and possibly building a science base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secret space plane is also reportedly in development.

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