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Three Chinese astronauts return after a record six months in space

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The three astronauts of the Shenzhou-13 mission returned to Earth on Saturday after six months on the Chinese space station. It is China’s longest stay in space, state broadcaster CCTV said.

This is China’s longest stay in space ever: the three astronauts of the Shenzhou-13 mission returned to Earth on Saturday, April 16, after a six-month stay on the Chinese space station. This is another successful step for Beijing in its ambitious space program to catch up with the United States, Europe and Russia.

After firing its red and white parachute, the return capsule to where the crew had been landed shortly before 10:00 am (2:00 am GMT) in the desert of northern China’s Inner Mongolia. “Shenzhou-13’s return capsule landed successfully,” state broadcaster CCTV said.

Live CCTV footage showed the capsule landing in a cloud of dust. Ground crews, who had stayed away from the landing site, rushed in helicopters to reach the capsule. The astronauts, much applauded, declared in turn that they felt “good”.

With 183 days in space, the crew breaks the previous national record for a stay in space, which was 92 days and was set in 2021 during the previous manned mission, Shenzhou-12.

Tiangong station will soon be completed

The Shenzhou-13 mission crew consisted of three army pilots: Commander Zhai Zhigang, 55, his colleague Wang Yaping, 42, and the youngest, Ye Guangfu, 41, who was the first spaceflight .

“Les sejours de six mois sont frequents, que ce soit pour (l’ancienne station russo-soviétique) Mir ou pour la Station spatiale internationale (ISS)”, relieves Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics, aux USA. “The goal (with Shenzhou-13) was not in itself to set a record but to develop the skills necessary for a permanent occupation of the station,” China’s ultimate goal, he explains.

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Named Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) in Chinese 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 Mir, its lifespan should be fifteen years.

An analysis of the health status of the Shenzhou-13 astronauts will allow China to learn more about the impact of a prolonged absence of gravity on organisms. In six months, the crew also continued construction of the station, taught two online courses for Chinese schoolchildren, conducted experiments, and refined their mastery of long stays.

“For example, they have improved their maintenance skills, through space walks and manipulations of the robotic arm” of the station, explains Chen Lan, an analyst at the site, which specializes in the Chinese space program. Shenzhou-13 “was not a significant breakthrough,” but “the completion of CSS later this year will be a very significant event,” he said.

Next stages of construction: shipping a cargo ship in May and then another manned mission, Shenzhou-14, which should launch in June. The last two modules of the space station will be sent from July. They will take the direction of space from the Wenchang launch center, located on the tropical island of Hainan (south) and whose Chinese president, Xi Jinping, declared on Thursday that he wanted to make it a “world-class” site. From Shenzhou-14, the CSS should be permanently busy.

Another step forward for the Chinese space program

Once poor, China has been pouring billions of euros into its space program for several decades. The Asian giant sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. Since then, it has achieved some remarkable feats, especially in recent years.

China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon in early 2019, a world first. In 2020, it brought back samples from the Moon and finished Beidou, its satellite navigation system that rivals the American GPS. In 2021, he landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send men to the Moon by 2030.

China’s ambition to build its own station has been fueled by the US refusal to accept Chinese on the ISS, a program run by NASA. This did not prevent the Shenzhou-13 crew from discussing last week with 150 American youth, parents and teachers gathered at the initiative of the Chinese Embassy in Washington. A meeting during which a video message was broadcast from the head of the American company SpaceX, Elon Musk, who called on “humanity to work together” for the conquest of space.

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