The first crewed mission to China’s new space station is on the books.
A spacecraft carrying Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed safely in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia today (September 17) at 1:34 a.m. EDT (0534 GMT; 1:34 p.m. Beijing time) today, bringing the ‘historical Shenzhou 12 mission at its end.
Shenzhou 12 launched on June 16 and arrived seven hours later in Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), the central module of the Chinese space station orbiting the Earth. The crew of the Shenzhou 12, commanded by Nie, spent 90 days aboard Tianhe, staying in the air about three times longer than any previous Chinese space flight.
Shenzhou 12’s return to Earth lasted several days. The spacecraft broke away from Tianhe on Wednesday (September 15) at 8:56 p.m. EDT (0056 GMT September 16), according to a statement issued by the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO). Shenzhou 12 then conducted a date test with Tianhe, which ended at 1:38 a.m. EDT (0538 GMT) on Thursday (September 16), CMSEO officials said in another update.
Video: Watch Shenzhou 12 Chinese astronauts land on Earth
Following: The latest news from the Chinese space program
While in orbit, the Shenzhou 12 astronauts took some snaps great photos of the earth and carried out various scientific experiments. They also conducted two spacewalks designed to help get the 54-foot-long (16.6-meter) Tianhe fully operational and ready for future visits, which will be frequent over the next few months.
For example, China should send the robotic cargo spaceship Tianzhou 3 to Tianhe around September 20. And the next six-month crewed mission to the module, the Shenzhou 13, is expected to launch in mid-October. (Exact target dates are difficult to come by with Chinese missions, as the nation tends not to announce many details of its spaceflight plans in advance.)
China is also planning to launch two more modules into orbit, which will connect at Tianhe to form a three-part space station called Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) which is about 20% as massive as the International space station (ISS). The assembly of this orbital outpost is expected to be completed next year.
“Tiangong” should sound familiar to space fans, as China has launched two exploration space labs bearing this name in the past decade. Tiangong 1 reached Earth orbit in September 2011 and hosted two crewed missions, Shenzhou 9 in June 2012 and Shenzhou 10 in June 2013. Tiangong 2 climbed in September 2016 and welcomed the Shenzhou 11 astronauts on board for a 30-day mission the following month.
These two Tiangongs are long gone. Tiangong 1 made an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in April 2018, burning over the pacific ocean. Tiangong 2 was headed for an expected disappearance, also over the Pacific, in July 2019.
Shenzhou 12 landing comes just a day before another highly anticipated comeback – that of SpaceX Inspiration4 mission, the first ever fully civilian trip to Earth orbit. Inspiration4 launched Wednesday evening (September 15), sending four people on a three-day trip around our planet. It is scheduled to land on Saturday (September 18).
Shenzhou 12, Inspiration4 and the International Space Station all took off at the same time for a few days this week, setting a new record for the most people in space simultaneously (14). The ISS, of course, is an orbital facility, having housed continuously rotating crews of astronauts since November 2000.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.