Three crew members of China’s Shenzhou-12 space mission have returned home after spending three months onboard the Tianhe space station, preparing it for future expansion missions.
Taikonauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo touched down on Friday at the Dongfeng landing site in the Inner Mongolia region of China’s north, Chinese media reported. The 90-day trip to Tianhe set a national record for the length of a space mission, but the next one, set to be launched in October, is expected to last twice as long.
The landing site in the Gobi Desert usually serves as a backup return location for Chinese manned missions. It was picked as a primary destination for the space capsule as a precaution, since the China National Space Agency has limited experience in returning people from its budding space station. The touchdown area measures roughly 20,000 square kilometers, allowing a comfortable margin for course deviations.
The landing was a success, with the three crew members reported to be in good condition after touching the ground.
The Shenzhou-12 was the first of four crewed missions required for the planned expansion of the Tianhe space station. China’s orbital outpost, which currently includes only its core module, is scheduled to have three additional modules launched and attached to it before the end of 2022.
The space explorers spend their time testing station equipment, including its robotic arm, and preparing it for future missions. The expedition included two spacewalks conducted in early July and late August.
Before the next crewed mission to Tianhe, China will launch the station’s second unmanned supply run.
Once complete, the Chinese installation will be humanity’s only alternative platform for long-term manned orbital missions to the aging International Space Station (ISS). China has been formally barred from flying to the ISS since 2011, when the US banned NASA from cooperating with Chinese counterparts. Russia, a major participant in the ISS project, expressed interest in using the Chinese space station as part of a possible joint moon exploration program.