Yesterday, three Chinese astronauts (or taikonauts) returned to Earth to conclude the Shenzhou 13 mission. The mission was the second spaceflight to construct China’s first space station, Tiangong.
The Shenzhou 13 crew of Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert last October. The astronaut crew then spent 183 days on the Tiangong space station, establishing 180 days (or six months) as the regular stint that future Chinese mission crews will spend in orbit. It was the longest mission in the history of China’s manned space program.
It took nine hours for the astronauts to land on the Earth’s surface after detaching the return capsule from the Tianhe core module of Tiangong. The capsule touched down back in Inner Mongolia at 9:56 a.m. local time Saturday morning. In an interview on state television, astronaut Wang Yaping said, “I want to tell my daughter, mom returned after reaching for the stars.”
Wang Yaping became the first female Chinese astronaut to conduct a spacewalk during the mission. The crew also taught physics lessons to high school students across China. Though, the bulk of the mission involved testing the station’s capabilities.
Though, it’s still 157 days short of the longest mission of the International Space Station (ISS), where American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent 340 days in space from March 2015 until March of the following year. NASA conducted medical experiments to observe the effects of long-term living in orbit, using Scott Kelly’s twin brother and retired astronaut Mark Kelly as an on-Earth point of reference.
The Chinese space program has two more Shenzhou missions scheduled in 2022. These two missions have the objective of completing the construction of the Tiangong space station before the year’s end. Two more modules will be attached to the Tianhe module. The completed Tiangong will be about 20 percent of the ISS’ size.