Chinese astronauts returned to earth on Friday after completing the country’s longest-ever crewed mission, the newest landmark in Beijing’s drive to become a serious space power.
The capsule carrying the three astronauts was suspended on a parachute and landed within the Gobi at 1:35 pm civil time (05:35 GMT).
The crew of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft were in “good health” after the 90-day mission, a record duration for China, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Live footage showed medical crew and support staff during a helicopter rush to a landing site within the Gobi. One staffer planted the Chinese ensign near the capsule.
The taikonauts — as Chinese astronauts are known — will undergo a 14-day quarantine before they will head home “because their immune systems may have weakened after the long mission,” Huang Weifen, chief designer of China’s manned space project told CCTV.
The mission was a part of China’s heavily promoted space program, which has already seen the state 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 Dominion Day and was the highlight of a huge propaganda campaign.
The crew stayed for 90 days at the Tiangong space platform, conducting spacewalks and scientific experiments.
“The successful completion of the mission […] paves the way for future regular missions and utilization of the [Chinese space] station (CSS),” said Chen Lan, an independent analyst at GoTaikonauts, which specializes in China’s space program.
“It may be a vital and really much-needed start for the CSS.”
Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace”, is predicted to work for a minimum of 10 years.
The mission is headed by Nie Haisheng, a decorated airforce pilot within the People’s Liberation Army who previously participated in two space missions.
The two other astronauts, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, also are within the military.
The Chinese space agency is planning a complete of 11 launches before the top of next year, including three more crewed missions which will deliver two lab modules to expand the 70-tonne station.
China has poured billions of dollars into its military-led space program in recent years because it tries to catch up with the US and Russia.
Beijing’s space ambitions are fuelled partially by a US ban on its astronauts on the International space platform (ISS), a collaboration between the US, Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan.
The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.
“Compared to the US, China remains technically somewhat behind,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, told AFP.
“The main US lead in human spaceflight is in total experience,” he said. “For example, two spacewalks isn’t an equivalent as many ISS spacewalks. Quantity makes a difference. “