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Shenzhou 12 crew lands after record stay on Chinese space station

September 17, 2021

— China's first space station crew has returned to Earth with the record for the longest time in space by Chinese astronauts.

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed on Friday (Sept. 17) aboard their Shenzhou 12 spacecraft after spending 92 days in orbit. Descending under a parachute, the capsule touched down at 1:34 a.m. EDT (0534 GMT or 1:34 p.m. Beijing Time) near Dongfeng in the Gobi Desert, northeast of the Jiuquan Satellite Center from where they launched three months ago.

It was the first Shenzhou to land in Dongfeng. Previous Chinese crewed missions returned to China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Haisheng, Boming and Hongbo began their trip home by departing the Tianhe core module of China's new Tiangong space station on Wednesday (Sept. 15). The Shenzhou 12 spacecraft separated from the orbital outpost at 8:56 p.m. EDT (0058 GMT or 8:56 a.m. Beijing Time Sept. 16).

After undocking, the crew performed circumnavigation and radial rendezvous tests, collecting data about the how the Shenzhou performed in close proximity to the Tianhe module in preparation for future missions to the space station.

The crew's landing capped a successful mission, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).

Launched on June 16, Haisheng, Boming and Hongbo reached the station within 6.5 hours and became the first to enter the 54-foot-long (16.6-m) Tianhe, or "Harmony of the Heavens." Outfitted similarly to the International Space Station but on a smaller scale, the core module includes individual crew quarters, a galley and modular science racks lining the interior walls.

The three astronauts spent their 90 days on Tianhe outfitting the interior of the core module, performing science experiments, taking part in outreach activities and maintaining the systems aboard the station.

The Shenzhou 12 crewmates partook in more than 120 different kinds of food and used a treadmill and stationary bicycle to exercise. The crew was able to stay in touch with the ground using two-way video calls and email.

The astronauts also performed two spacewalks.

On July 3, Liu and Tang conducted a six-hour, 46-minute extravehicular activity (EVA) to test their newly-redesigned Chinese Feitian and configure tools on the station's exterior to facilitate future spacewalks. Liu also demonstrated the capability of a 33-foot-long (10-meter) robotic arm to maneuver an astronaut to different workstations, with Boming controlling the arm from inside the module.

Nie and Liu performed the Shenzhou 12 mission's second EVA on Aug. 19, installing and extending pumps and deploying a panoramic camera. The five-hour, 55-minute spacewalk also prepared Tianhe for the addition of future modules.

China launched the Tianhe core module in April, beginning a series of 11 planned missions to establish and utilize its first multi-module space station by the end of 2022. When complete, the T-shaped Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") complex will also have two science modules, Wentian ("Quest for the Heavens") and Mengtian ("Dreaming of the Heavens"), extending from the sides of Tianhe.

The Shenzhou 12 mission was China's seventh human spaceflight since 2003. It was Nie's third mission, Liu's second and Tang's first.

As Shenzhou 12 prepared to return to Earth, China rolled out a Long March 7 rocket with Tianzhou 3, the country's second resupply ship bound for its space station. Expected to launch on Sept. 20, the cargo craft will deliver supplies needed for Shenzhou 13, China's next crewed mission planned for October.


China's Shenzhou 12 capsule with Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming descends approaches a landing in the Gobi Desert after returning from China's space station, Sept. 17, 2021. (Xinhua)

Shenzhou 12 crew members Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming in the core module of China's space station. (CMSA)

Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming during the second spacewalk of two conducted during the Shenzhou 12 mission. (CMSA)

Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming on China's Shenzhou 12 spacecraft during their return to Earth on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (CMSA/CGTN)

Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming wave after landing in the Gobi Desert on board China's Shenzhou 12 after 92 days in space. (Xinhua)

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