Never before has China spent so much time in space. The three astronauts from the Shenzhou 13 mission returned to Earth on Saturday after six months on the Chinese space station. This is another successful step for Beijing in its ambitious space program to overtake the United States, Europe and Russia. After triggering its red and white parachute, the return capsule landed, where the crew – consisting of a woman and two men – had taken place, shortly before noon. 10 (0200 GMT) in the desert of Inner Mongolia (north of China). “The return capsule from Shenzhou-13 has landed successfully,” the state television company CCTV said.
Live CCTV footage showed the capsule landing in a cloud of dust. Ground crews who had been cleared of the landing site hurried in helicopters to reach the capsule. The Earth crew applauded the astronauts, who in turn said they were “well”. The crew consisted of three army pilots: Commander Zhai Zhigang (55), his colleague Wang Yaping (42) – who became the first Chinese to complete a spacewalk in November – and the youngest Ye Guangfu (41 years old), whose first space flight was it.
Zhai Zhigang left the capsule first, about 45 minutes after landing. The former fighter pilot, who performed China’s first spacewalk in 2008, waved smiling at the cameras as he was hoisted up by the ground crew before being packed into a blanket. “I’m proud of our heroic country,” he told CCTV.
The heavenly palace
With 183 days in space, the crew smashes the previous national record for stays in space, which was 92 days and was set in 2021 during the previously manned mission, Shenzhou-12. “The goal (with Shenzhou-13) was not in itself to establish a record, but to develop the skills necessary for a permanent occupation of the station,” the ultimate goal for China, noted Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA.
Named in Chinese Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), but also known by its English acronym CSS (for “Chinese Space Station” in French), it should be completed by the end of 2022. Similar in size to the former Russian-Soviet station Mir, its lifespan should be about fifteen years.
Next step, a cargo ship
In six months, the crew completed two spacewalks, continued construction of the station, conducted two courses via the Internet for Chinese schoolchildren, performed experiments, and refined their mastery of extended stays. “For example, they have improved their maintenance skills through spacewalking and manipulation of the robotic arm” by the station, elaborated to AFP Chen Lan, an analyst at the website GoTaikonauts.com, specializing in the Chinese space program.
Shenzhou-13 was “not a significant breakthrough,” but “the completion of the SSC later this year will be a very significant event,” he said. Next stages of construction: dispatch of a cargo ship in May and then another manned mission, Shenzhou-14, to be launched in June.
The last two space station modules are to be shipped from July. They will take the direction of space from the Wenchang Launch Center, located on the tropical island of Hainan (south), whose Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday declared that he wanted to make it a “world-class” place. From Shenzhou-14, CSS was to be permanently occupied.
The moon around 2030
China has been investing billions of euros in its space program for decades, sending its first astronaut into space in 2003. Since then, he has achieved some remarkable achievements, especially in recent years. In early 2019, it placed a machine on the other side of the Moon, a world first. In 2020, it brought samples back from the Moon and completed Beidou, its satellite navigation system, a competitor to the US GPS.
In 2021, it landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send men to the Moon in 2030. China has been excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned Nasa from engaging in the Asian country.