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Three Chinese astronauts return to Earth after 90 days on Beijing's budding space station

China making progress on new space station
China making progress on new space station 01:42

Beijing — A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after a 90-day stay aboard their nation's first space station in China's longest mission yet.

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship just after 1:30 p.m. local time (1:30 a.m. EDT Friday) after having undocked from the space station Thursday morning.

State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert,where it was met by helicopters and off-road vehicles. Minutes later, a crew of technicians began opening the hatch of the capsule, which appeared undamaged.

The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and were seated in reclining chairs just outside the capsule to allow them time to readjust to Earth's gravity after three months of living in a weightless environment. The three were due to fly to Beijing on Friday.

APTOPIX China Space
In photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese astronauts from left, Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming wave at the Dongfeng landing site in the Gobi Desert on September 17, 2021. The trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth after a 90-day stay aboard their nation's first space station in China's longest mission yet. Xinhua News Agency / Ju Zhenhua / AP

"With China's growing strength and the rising level of Chinese technology, I firmly believe there will even more astronauts who will set new records," mission commander Nie told CCTV.

After launching on June 17, the three astronauts went on two spacewalks, deployed a 33-foot mechanical arm, and had a video call with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

While few details have been made public by China's military, which runs the space program, astronaut trios are expected to be brought on 90-day missions to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional.

The government hasn't announced the names of the next set of astronauts nor the launch date of 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.

A giant screen shows a news broadcast of the astronauts of the Shenzhou-12 mission inside the core module Tianhe of the Chinese space station, before returning to Earth, in Beijing
A giant screen shows a news broadcast in Beijing of the astronauts on the Shenzhou-12 mission inside the core module Tianhe of the Chinese space station on September 16, 2021, before they returned to Earth the next day after a 90 day mission. TINGSHU WANG / REUTERS

China's space program has advanced at a measured pace and has largely avoided many of the problems that marked the U.S. and Russian programs that were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of spaceflight.

That's made it a source of enormous national pride, complementing the country's rise to economic, technological, military and diplomatic prominence in recent years under the firm rule of the Communist Party and current leader Xi Jinping.

China embarked on its own space station program in the 1990s after being excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections to the Chinese space program's secrecy and military backing.

China has simultaneously pushed ahead with uncrewed missions, placing a rover on the little-explored far side of the moon and, in December, the Chang'e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.

China this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, with its accompanying Zhurong rover venturing out to look for evidence of life.

Another program calls for collecting samples from an asteroid, an area in which Japan's rival space program has made progress of late.

China also plans to dispatch another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and is pursuing a possible crewed mission to the moon and eventually building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.

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