China’s Shenzhou 13 spacecraft has landed in Inner Mongolia to wrap up a 182-day mission. Astronaut Wang Yaping, smiling after stepping out of the spacecraft, has become China’s most experienced space pilot. Credit: CCTV/Spaceflight Now

Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday evening to conclude a 182-day mission on China’s space station, the longest crewed mission in the history of the country’s space program. The landing sets the stage for the launch of a new crew and the expansion of China’s space station later this year.

Suspended under a parachute, the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft landed in the Inner Mongolia region of northwest China at 9:56 p.m. EDT Friday (0156 GMT Saturday), bringing home Commander Zhai Zhigang and his crewmates Wang Yaping and Ye Guang Fu.

Shenzhou Flight 13 lasted about twice as long as the longest previous Chinese human spaceflight mission. Wang, a 42-year-old former Chinese military pilot, has become the Chinese astronaut who has spent the longest time in space: 197 days over two missions.

“We have successfully completed the Shenzhou 13 mission,” Zhai said in an interview with Chinese state television after landing. “We are now back on Earth.”

All three crew members said they were in good health after landing. The astronauts thanked the Chinese government and Chinese people for their support before ground crews helped them into support vehicles for medical checks.

Wang had a message for his 6-year-old daughter: “I’m back with all the stars I collected for you.”

The three astronauts launched Oct. 15 on the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft and docked with the Chinese space station’s Tianhe core module six and a half hours later.

After six months of experiments, spacewalks and preparing the station for future expansion, the Shenzhou 13 astronauts floated in their Shenzhou 13 spacecraft and battened down the hatches with the Tianhe core module on Friday. The spacecraft undocked from the station’s nadir, or Earth-facing, port at 12:44 p.m. EDT (1644 GMT) as the lab soared nearly 380 kilometers above the planet, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

The spacecraft fired thrusters to move a safe distance from the space station, then jettisoned its orbital habitation module, which will remain in orbit until aerodynamic drag drags it back into the atmosphere. The ship’s engines then ignited for a deorbit burn to slow down for re-entry, then the Shenzhou propulsion module separated, leaving the landing capsule to return the three astronauts to Earth.

The re-entry capsule, protected by a heat shield, encountered temperatures of several thousand degrees. After a brief G-force build-up, the spacecraft deployed a main parachute to slow its descent for landing at the Dongfeng Landing Site in the Inner Mongolia region of northwest China.

Dongfeng Landing Field is near the Jiuquan Launch Center, where Shenzhou 13 took off last October. The previous Shenzhou mission, which returned to Earth last September, became the first mission to land with astronauts at the Dongfeng site. Earlier Chinese missions parachuted into another part of Inner Mongolia known as the Siziwang Banner.

During their stay on the Chinese space station, the Shenzhou 13 astronauts carried out a series of experiments and carried out two spacewalks.

Zhai and Wang completed the mission’s first spacewalk on November 7. Astronauts prepared the space station’s 47-foot (14.5-meter) robotic arm for service, connecting its two main segments and installing a suspension device to help the arm move equipment around the exterior. from the laboratory.

Wang became the first Chinese woman to perform a spacewalk.

The mission’s second spacewalk, on Dec. 26, was performed by Ye and Zhai, who deployed an external panoramic camera and tested methods for astronauts on future missions to move objects outside of the station.

Both spacewalks lasted more than six hours and the astronauts wore Chinese-made Feitian spacesuits.

The Shenzhou 13 astronauts also assessed the living and working conditions inside the Tianhe core module. They proved the station’s life support system, which includes technology to recycle urine, sweat and water vapor into drinking water. Astronauts also tested the station’s stationary bike and treadmill to maintain fitness during their mission.

The astronauts addressed the Chinese public in science education and outreach activities, and celebrated traditional events in the Chinese calendar, such as the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, and the Lantern Festival. Wang, who is on her second space mission, said the astronauts enjoyed Chinese cuisine on the station, including dumplings, zongzi, mooncakes and tangyuan.

Chinese astronauts answered questions from American schoolchildren on April 9 at an event hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Washington. Wang said then that she looked forward to returning to Earth, seeing her daughter and running outside on sunny afternoons.

“We conducted experiments in the space station to study how cell growth and development change under weightless conditions and studied their patterns and mechanisms of variation,” Ye told the American students.

Zhai Zhigang is a 55-year-old Major General of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force. Shenzhou 13 was Zhai’s second space mission. He became the first Chinese astronaut to perform a spacewalk in 2008.

Ye, 41, has completed his first space mission. Like his teammates, he was a pilot in the Chinese military before joining the country’s astronaut corps.

The Shenzhou 13 mission was the second crew to live and work on China’s space station, following the 92-day Shenzhou 12 mission last year. The Shenzhou 13 astronauts nearly doubled China’s spaceflight endurance record set by Shenzhou 12.

Astronauts Wang Yaping, Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guangfu aboard the Chinese space station. Credit: CMSE

The departure of the Shenzhou 13 crew leaves China’s space station unoccupied until the launch of the next team of long-duration astronauts in June. Shenzhou 14 will deliver three more astronauts to the station for another six-month mission.

The first section of China’s space station, Tianhe, was launched last April on a Long March 5 heavy rocket. The Tianzhou 2 cargo ship was launched in May, followed by the Shenzhou 12 launch in June and the supply mission from Tianzhou 3 in September.

The Tianzhou 2 supply ship undocked from the station last month and burned on its way back in, as expected. China plans to launch the Tianzhou 4 cargo mission in May, then Shenzhou 14 is expected to take off in June.

Later this year, China plans to launch the Wentian and Mengtian large laboratory modules to complete the initial assembly of the space station.

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