The first crewed mission to China's new space station is in the books.
A spacecraft carrying Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo touched down safely in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia today (Sept. 17) at 1:34 a.m. EDT (0534 GMT; 1:34 p.m. Beijing time) today, bringing the historic Shenzhou 12 mission to an end.
Shenzhou 12 launched on June 16 and arrived seven hours later at Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens"), the core module of China's Earth-orbiting space station. The Shenzhou 12 crew, commanded by Nie, spent 90 days aboard Tianhe, staying aloft about three times longer than any previous Chinese crewed spaceflight.
Shenzhou 12's return to Earth was a multiday affair. The spacecraft detached from Tianhe Wednesday (Sept. 15) at 8:56 p.m. EDT (0056 GMT on Sept. 16), according to a statement released by the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO). Shenzhou 12 then performed a rendezvous test with Tianhe, which was complete by 1:38 a.m. EDT (0538 GMT) Thursday (Sept. 16), CMSEO officials said in another update.
During their time in orbit, the Shenzhou 12 astronauts snapped some amazing photos of Earth and carried out a variety of scientific experiments. They also performed two spacewalks designed to help get the 54-foot-long (16.6 meters) Tianhe fully up and running and ready for future visits, which will be frequent over the coming months.
For example, China is expected to send the robotic Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft toward Tianhe around Sept. 20. And the next crewed mission to the module, the six-month-long Shenzhou 13, is apparently scheduled to launch in mid-October. (Exact target dates are hard to come by with Chinese missions, because the nation tends not to announce many details of its spaceflight plans in advance.)
China also plans to launch two more modules to orbit, which will link up with Tianhe to form a three-piece space station called Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") that's about 20% as massive as the International Space Station (ISS). Assembly of this orbital outpost is expected to be completed next year.
"Tiangong" should sound familiar to space fans, because China launched two pathfinder space labs with that name in the last decade. Tiangong 1 reached Earth orbit in September 2011 and hosted two crewed missions, Shenzhou 9 in June 2012 and Shenzhou 10 in June 2013. Tiangong 2 went up in September 2016 and welcomed the Shenzhou 11 astronauts aboard for a 30-day mission the next month.
Both of those Tiangongs are long gone. Tiangong 1 made an uncontrolled reentry to Earth's atmosphere in April 2018, burning up over the Pacific Ocean. Tiangong 2 was steered to a planned demise, also over the Pacific, in July 2019.
Shenzhou 12's landing comes just one day before another highly anticipated return — that of SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission, the first-ever all-civilian trip to Earth orbit. Inspiration4 launched on Wednesday night (Sept. 15), sending four people on a three-day journey around our planet. It's scheduled to splash down on Saturday (Sept. 18).
Shenzhou 12, Inspiration4 and the International Space Station were all aloft at the same time for a few days this week, setting a new record for the most people in space simultaneously (14). The ISS, of course, is an orbital fixture, having hosted rotating astronaut crews continuously since November 2000.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.