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China's 1st space station crew to return to Earth on Friday

China's three Shenzhou 12 astronauts inside their spacecraft during their launch to space.
China's three Shenzhou 12 astronauts inside their spacecraft during their launch to space. (Image credit: CCTV)

China's three astronauts are set to return home on Friday after two spacewalks and setting a new national record for longest crewed spaceflight mission.

Astronauts Nie Haisheng (commander), Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo have spent 90 days aboard China's Tianhe space station module since arriving aboard Shenzhou 12 on June 17. Airspace closure notices issued on Wednesday indicate that the crew will be returning between 1:14 and 1:44 a.m. EDT (0514-0544 GMT or 1:14-1:44 p.m. local time) on Friday (Sept. 17).

The landing will, for the first time, take place near Dongfeng, in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. The landing area is close to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center from which China's human spaceflight missions launch. Previous Shenzhou landings targeted grasslands at Siziwang (Dorbod Banner), also in Inner Mongolia. Teams have been carrying out search and rescue drills at the Dongfeng landing site for at least the last week, according to media reports.

Related: China's Shenzhou 12 astronauts send back stunning images of Earth
More: China's Tiangong space station

While in orbit the Shenzhou 12 astronauts have completed two extravehicular activities (EVAs), or spacewalks, to prepare Tianhe for future arrivals, carried out a range of experiments and sent back stunning images of Earth.

A few tasks remain. Before returning home, the Shenzhou 12 astronauts will circumnavigate Tianhe in their capsule and test a radial rendezvous, by undocking from the module and approaching Tianhe from below, rather than along its flight path. 

Tianhe will, however, receive a new visitor very soon. The Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft is expected to launch from Wenchang, south China, around September 20. Tianzhou 3 will deliver supplies for the next crewed mission to the station, Shenzhou 13, which is set to launch from Jiuquan in October.

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Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.