Chinese astronauts return to Earth after record space mission

The three-member crew spent six months aboard China's Tiangong space station

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Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Saturday after 183 days in space, ending China's longest crewed mission as it continues its quest to become a major space power.

The Shenzhou-13 was the latest mission in Beijing's drive to rival the United States, after landing a rover on Mars and sending probes to the Moon.

State broadcaster CCTV showed the capsule landing in a cloud of dust, with ground crew then arriving at the site in helicopters.

The two men and one woman – Zhai Zhigang, Ye Guangfu and Wang Yaping – returned to Earth shortly before 10am Beijing time after six months aboard the Tianhe core module of China's Tiangong space station.

Ground crew applauded as the astronauts each took turns to report they were in good physical condition.

Mr Zhai, the mission commander, was the first to emerge from the capsule roughly 45 minutes after the landing, waving and grinning at cameras as he was lifted by ground crew into a specially designed chair before being bundled into a blanket.

"I'm proud of our heroic country," he said in an interview with CCTV shortly after leaving the capsule. "I feel extremely good."

I'm proud of our heroic country. I feel extremely good
Zhai Zhigang, Shenzhou-13 mission commander

The trio launched in the Shenzhou-13 from China's north-western Gobi Desert last October, the second of four crewed missions to be sent during 2021-2022 to assemble the country's first permanent space station.

Ms Wang became the first Chinese woman to spacewalk last November, as she and Mr Zhai installed space station equipment during a six-hour stint.

Mr Zhai, 55, is a former fighter pilot who performed China's first spacewalk in 2008, while Mr Ye is a People's Liberation Army pilot.

The trio completed two spacewalks, carried out numerous scientific experiments, set up equipment and tested technologies for future construction during their time in orbit.

The astronauts spent the past few weeks tidying up and preparing the cabin facilities and equipment for the crew of the incoming Shenzhou-14, expected to be launched in the coming months.

China's previous space mission record was set by last year's Shenzhou-12 deployment, which lasted 92 days.

Six months will become the normal residence period aboard China's space station, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

The world's second-largest economy has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with plans to have the space station permanently manned from this year and eventually sending humans to the Moon.

China has come a long way in catching up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.

But under President Xi Jinping, the country's plans for its heavily-promoted "space dream" have been put into overdrive.

Besides a space station, Beijing is also planning to build a base on the Moon, and the country's National Space Administration said it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029.

China has been excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the US banned Nasa from engaging with the country.

While China does not plan to use its space station for global co-operation on the scale of the ISS, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration.

The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although Nasa has said it could remain functional until 2030.

Updated: April 16, 2022, 10:46 AM