Chinese astronauts return after 90-day space mission

Astronauts (from left) Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming waving during a departure ceremony before boarding the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft on June 17, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese astronauts returned to earth on Friday (Sept 17) after completing a 90-day mission to a space station, a record duration for China, state broadcaster CCTV showed in a live feed.

The capsule carrying the three astronauts was suspended on a parachute and landed in the Gobi desert at 1.35pm Singapore time.

The crew of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft were in "good health", CCTV reported.

Live footage showed medical crew and support staff in a helicopter rush to a landing site in the Gobi desert. One worker planted the Chinese national flag near the capsule.

The taikonauts - as Chinese astronauts are known - will undergo a 14-day quarantine before they can go home "because their immune systems may have weakened after the long mission", Ms Huang Weifen, chief designer of China's manned space project told CCTV.

The mission was part of China's heavily promoted space programme, which has already seen the nation land a rover on Mars and send probes to the moon.

The launch of Beijing's first crewed mission in nearly five years coincided with the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party on July 1, and was the highlight of a massive propaganda campaign.

The crew stayed for 90 days at the Tiangong space station, conducting spacewalks and scientific experiments.

"The successful completion of the mission... paves the way for future regular missions and utilisation of the (Chinese space) station," said independent analyst Chen Lan of GoTaikonauts, which specialises in China's space programme.

"It is a very important and very much-needed start for the CSS (Chinese space station)."

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Tiangong, meaning "heavenly palace", is expected to operate for at least 10 years.

The mission is headed by decorated air force pilot Nie Haisheng of the People's Liberation Army, who previously participated in two space missions. The two other astronauts, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, are also in the military.

The Chinese space agency is planning a total of 11 launches before the end of next year, including three more crewed missions that will deliver two lab modules to expand the 70-tonne station.

China has poured billions of dollars into its military-led space programme in recent years as it tries to catch up with the United States and Russia.

Beijing's space ambitions have been fuelled in part by a US ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), a collaboration between the US, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.

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