Three astronauts return from China’s longest manned space mission

The astronauts (from gauche à droite) Ye Guangfu (41 years old), Wang Yaping (42 years old) and Zhai Zhigang (55 years old), the leaders of the Shenzhou-13 mission, on October 15, 2021, in the north-west of China.

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 six months on the Chinese space station. A new successful step for Beijing in its ambitious space program aimed at catching up with the United States, Europe and Russia.

After firing its red and white parachute, the return capsule, where the crew – made up of a woman and two men – had taken place, landed shortly before 04:00 French time in the desert of Inner Mongolia (north China) .

“Shenzhou-13 return capsule landed successfully”State television (CCTV) said. Live images 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. They applauded the astronauts who took turns saying they felt ” well “.

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The “Heavenly Palace” built in late 2022

With 183 days in space, the crew broke the previous national record, set in 2021, during the previous manned mission, Shenzhou-12, which was 92 days. The crew consisted of three army pilots: Commander Zhai Zhigang (55), his colleague Wang Yaping (42) and the younger Ye Guangfu (41), whose first space flight was.

“Six-month stays are common, whether for Mir [l’ancienne station russo-soviétique] or for the International Space Station [ISS] »said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States. ” The goal [avec Shenzhou-13] it was not in itself to establish a record but to develop the necessary skills for a permanent occupation of the station”China’s ultimate goal, he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Named “Tiangong” (“Heavenly Palace”), 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 life should be about fifteen years.

Next manned mission in June

Images taken from Chinese television (CCTV) showing the return capsule about to land in Inner Mongolia, April 16, 2022.

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

“For example, they improved their maintenance skills, through spacewalks and robotic arm manipulations.” of the station, explained to AFP Chen Lan, an analyst at the site, which specializes in the Chinese space program. Shenzhou-13 was not “not a significant advance” plus “the completion of the CSS at the end of this year will be a very important event”he pointed.

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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). Chinese President Xi Jinping said Thursday that he wanted to make it a site “world class”. From Shenzhou-14, the CSS should be permanently busy.

Already several space hits

China, once poor, now invests billions of euros in its space program. 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 device 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 (a competitor to the American GPS). In 2021, he landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send men to the Moon by 2030.

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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. During this meeting, a video message was broadcast from the head of the American company SpaceX, Elon Musk, who called “humanity to work together” To the conquest of space.

The world with AFP

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