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On September 17 three Chinese astronauts finished their three-month mission aboard the Tianhe space station module and returned safely to Earth. 

Commander Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed inside the designated landing zone near Dongfeng in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia, at around 1:34 a.m. Eastern Friday.

According to Space News, the essential parachute opened around 10 kilometers above the ground, with the heat shield jettisoned at around 5.5 kilometers up. The space capsule landed within time and area indicated by airspace closure notices issued earlier in the week. Ground search and rescue teams swiftly located and secured the capsule after touchdown.

The Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center declared the Shenzhou-12 a “complete success”.

“The universe is so vast, beautiful and fascinating. I was fortunate and happy to have the chance to fly up into the sky again and take a spacewalk on our own space station,” Liu Boming said in a post-landing interview. Nie told media that, “I believe with the continuous development of China’s comprehensive strength and national science and technology level, there will be more astronauts setting new records and pushing China’s space work to a new height.”

The three Shenzhou-12 astronauts were in space for 90 days. Last Wednesday they finished their mission staying aboard the core module of China’s under-construction space station. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft separated from the Tianhe module then carried out circumnavigation of Tianhe and a radial rendezvous test. 

Shenzhou-12 mission had a plan to deliver verification of regenerative life support systems aboard Tianhe, also installation of equipment for future missions, numerous experiments, outreach , Earth imagery and two extravehicular activities.

This mission also beat the national record of human spaceflight duration which is over 92 days and four hours. The previous record was 33 days of Shenzhou-11.

The vessel landed in a new designation area in the vicinity of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Previously the landing point was situated in the glasslands of Siziwang, Inner Mongolia. There are some reasons to do that. First of all, scientists calculated the increasing population density around Siziwand. Secondly, the need to optimize for astronaut recovery as the duration of spaceflight missions also increases. 

Shenzhou-12 was the third of 11 missions scheduled to construct, supply and inhabit China’s three-module, 66-metric-ton space station. 

The main module of the Tianhe launched in April becoming the first of three space station modules. It is currently in a 381 x 384-kilometer orbit inclined by 41 degrees. The Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft launched in may to deliver supplies, EVA suits, experiments and propellant to Tianhe ahead of Shenzhou-12.

Tianhe hosted the three Shenzhou-12 astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo from June 17 to September 15. 

Tianzhou-2 will soon undock from the Tianhe aft port and dock with the forward docking port and test microgravity propellant transfer. Tianzhou-2 will then later be deorbited over the South Pacific. 

Tianzhou-3 is being prepared to launch around Sept. 20 from Wenchang following rollout of the fourth Long March 7 rocket Sept. 16. It will provide supplies and other equipment for the six-month-long visit to Tianhe of the three Shenzhou-13 astronauts. The latter mission will launch from Jiuquan on a Long March 2F as soon as early October.

Unofficial projections have Shenzhou-13 running from October to March 2022. Tianzhou-4 supply mission would then follow in around a month later, with Shenzhou-14 in May 2022. The two experiment modules, Wentian and Mengtian, are to launch May-June and August-September respectively. Finally, Tianzhou-5 would launch in October in preparation for Shenzhou-15 in November 2022, completing the construction phase.

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