Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station

BEIJING (AP) — A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth yesterday 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 1.30pm after having undocked from the space station on Thursday.

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.

“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 10-metre 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 programme, 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 has not 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.

Chinese astronauts Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming at the Dongfeng landing site in northern China. PHOTO: AP