BEIJING — Three Chinese astronauts landed in a northern desert on Sunday after six months of working to complete the construction of the Tiangong station, a symbol of the country's ambitious space program, state TV reported.
A capsule carrying Commander Chen Dong and astronauts Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe touched down at a landing site in the Gobi Desert in northern China at approximately 8: 10 p.m. 7: 10 a.m. They overlapped with three colleagues who arrived Wednesday on the Shenzhou 15 mission for their six month stay, marking the first time that China had six astronauts in space at the same time. The third and final module of the station docked with the station last month.
The astronauts were carried out of the capsule by medical workers about 40 minutes after touchdown. They were all smiles and appeared to be in good condition, waving happily at workers at the landing site.
After six busy and fulfilling months in space, I am very fortunate to have witnessed the completion of the basic structure of the Chinese space station," said Chen, who was the first to exit the capsule. Like meteors, we returned to the embrace of the motherland. Liu, another astronaut, said she was moved to see relatives and her fellow compatriots.
The three astronauts were part of the Shenzhou 14 mission, which was launched in June. After their arrival in Tiangong, Chen, Liu and Cai oversaw five rendezvous and dockings with various spacecraft, including one carrying the third of the station's three modules.
They also performed three spacewalks, beamed down a live science lecture from the station, and conducted a range of experiments.
The Tiangong is part of the Chinese plan for a permanent human presence in space.
China built its own station after it was excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese space programs close ties to the People's Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.
The station's maximum weight was 100 tons with the arrival of the Shenzhou 15 mission.
Without attached spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons - a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.
With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only space station still up and running if the International Space Station retires by the end of the decade as predicted.
China became the third government to send astronauts on its own after the Soviet Union and the United States in 2003.
China has had a number of uncrewed mission successes: its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the little-known far side of the moon. Its Chang e 5 probe also returned lunar rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is looking for evidence of life on Mars.
Officials are reported to be considering a possible crewed mission to the moon, although there isn't a timeline.