It's been a successful first crewed mission to China’s new space station.
Today's historic Shenzhou 12 mission was ended when a spacecraft carrying Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming safely touched down in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia, at 1:34 AM EDT.
Shenzhou 12 launched on June 16th and reached Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens") seven hours later. This core module of China’s Earth-orbiting satellite is called Tianhe. Nie, the commander of Shenzhou 12, spent 90 days aboard Tianhe. This crew was three times longer than any other Chinese crewed spaceflight.
Shenzhou 12's return from Earth took place over several days. According to a statement by China Manned Space Engineering Office, the spacecraft left Tianhe Wednesday at 8:56 PM EDT (0056 GMT Sept. 16). Shenzhou 12 performed a rendezvous test to Tianhe at 1:38 AM EDT (0538 GMT), according to another update by CMSEO officials.
Video: China's Shenzhou 12 astronauts return to Earth
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After landing in Inner Mongolia's Gobi Desert on Sept. 17, 2021, the three-person Shenzhou 12 crew - Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming - they exit their Shenzhou capsule. This was to complete a 90-day mission towards China's Tianhe module. It is the first piece of Tiangong's Tiangong space station. (Image credit to CMSE).
The Shenzhou 12 astronauts took amazing photographs of Earth while in orbit and also carried out various scientific experiments. Two spacewalks were also conducted to get Tianhe, a 54-foot-long (16.6 meter) satellite, up and running for future visits.
China, for example, is expected to launch the robotic Tianzhou3 cargo spacecraft towards Tianhe on Sept. 20. The next crewed mission, the six-month-long Shenzhou 13 spacecraft, is scheduled to launch in mid October. It is difficult to find exact target dates for Chinese missions because China tends to not announce details about its spaceflight plans far in advance.
China plans to launch two additional modules to orbit. These will link up to Tianhe and form a three-piece space station called Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace"), about 20% larger than the International Space Station (ISS). The assembly of this orbital outpost will be complete next year.
Space fans will recognize the name "Tiangong", as China has launched two space labs named after it in the past decade. Tiangong 1 was launched to Earth orbit in September 2011. It hosted two crewed missions: Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10. Tiangong 2 was launched in September 2016 and hosted the Shenzhou 11 astronauts for a 30-day mission.
Both Tiangong 1 and 2 are long gone. Tiangong 1 made an uncontrolled return to Earth's atmosphere, burning up above the Pacific Ocean in April 2018. Tiangong 2 was guided to a planned end, also over Pacific Ocean in July 2019.
Shenzhou 12's return to Earth orbit comes one day after another highly anticipated return, that of SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission. This is the first ever all-civilian trip. Inspiration4 launched Wednesday night (Sept.15), sending four people on an unprecedented three-day trip around the planet. It is scheduled to arrive on Saturday, September 18
Shenzhou 12, Inspiration4 & the International Space Station were all in orbit at the same moment for a few days this Week, setting a new record (14). The ISS is an orbital fixture that has hosted rotating astronaut crews since November 2000.