BEIJING (AP) – Three astronauts who spent 90 days on the Chinese space station left on Thursday in preparation for their return to Earth.
The National Space Agency said Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo boarded the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and undocked from the space station at 8:56 a.m. (0056 GMT) Thursday.
State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of astronauts securing packages inside their spacecraft, which is due to drop into the Gobi Desert on Friday near the Jiuquan launch center.
Astronauts have already set China’s record for the most time spent in space. After the launch on June 17, mission commander Nie and astronauts Liu and Tang carried out two spacewalks, deployed a 10-meter (33-foot) mechanical arm, and had a video call with the head of the Xi Jinping Communist Party.
Before undocking, the astronauts downloaded data from their experiments and made sure the station would continue to operate unmanned, CCTV reported.
The return trip is expected to take at least 30 hours, CCTV said. Before leaving, Nie and his colleagues expressed their thanks for the “round-the-clock support and dedication of all the staff.”
Four exercises were conducted on the ground at the Dongfeng Landing Site in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to ensure the safe return of the crew.
Although few details have been released by the Chinese military, which manages the space program, trios of astronauts are expected to be required to complete 90-day missions at 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.
When completed with the addition of two additional modules, the station will weigh approximately 66 tonnes, a fraction of the size of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998, and will weigh approximately 450 tonnes when completed.
In preparation for the permanent station, China has launched two experimental modules over the past decade. Tiangong-1 was abandoned before burning out during an uncontrolled loss of orbit. Its successor, the Tiangong-2, was taken out of orbit in 2018 under full control.
China launched its bid to build such facilities in the early 1990s following successes in previous missions and its exclusion from the International Space Station, largely due to US objections to the covert nature of the Chinese program. and its close military ties.
U.S. law requires congressional approval for contacts between U.S. and Chinese space programs, but China is cooperating with space experts from other countries, including France, Sweden, Russia, and Italy.
China has also continued unmanned missions, particularly in lunar exploration. It placed a rover on the far side of the moon, little explored, and in December, the Chang’e 5 probe brought lunar 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 that ventured in search of evidence of life.
Another program involves the collection of earth from an asteroid, which has been a particular goal of rival Japan’s space program.
China is also planning to send another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and has expressed a desire to send people to the moon and possibly build a science base there, although no timeline has been proposed. for such projects. A highly secret space plane is also said to be in development.
The Chinese space program has progressed steadily and cautiously and largely avoided the failures that marked the American and Russian programs which were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of spaceflight.