HELSINKI — Three astronauts safely returned to Earth April 15 after spending a national record 182 days in orbit, completing China’s second crewed space station mission.

Commander Zhai Zhigang and colleagues Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu touched down in the Dongfeng landing zone at 9:56 p.m Eastern (9:56 a.m. local, April 16), x hours after departing the Tianhe space station module.

The landing occurred roughly 80 kilometers away from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, from which the trio lifted off atop a Long March 2F rocket back in October.

The astronauts spent six months aboard Tianhe, the core module for China’s under construction space station. They conducted a pair of extravehicular activities totaling 12 hours and 36 minutes, carried out a range of science experiments and technology tests and hosted live science lectures for students back on Earth.

Shenzhou-13 undocked from Tianhe at 12:44 p.m. Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center issued a command at 9:06 p.m. for the Shenzhou-13 return module to separate from the orbital module. 

It was the first time that China had employed a “rapid return,” cutting the number of orbits after leaving Tianhe from 11 down to five. Landing nine hours after undocking. 

Search and rescue teams reached the landing site soon after the capsule touched down, slowed by a main parachute and retrorockets shortly before impact.

Shenzhou-13 landed at Dongfeng at 0156 UTC this morning, bringing a successful end to China’s longest human spaceflight mission at 183 days.

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) April 16, 2022

After exiting the capsule, Zhai said “I’d like to report to the motherland and the people that we have successfully fulfilled the Shenzhou-13 spaceflight mission.”

Wang, the first woman aboard the space station and the first Chinese woman to embark on a spacewalk, asked that her young daughter be told that “her star-picking mother is back,” referring to a pre-mission promise that she would bring back a star for her child.

“At this moment, I have accomplished my dream of flying into space and can report back to the motherland proudly,” Ye said. Each astronaut mentioned a combination of the motherland, President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party in their post-landing remarks.

“In the future, we will always strive for better achievements according to the call of the Party and the people, and live up to the times and the great trust of the Party and the people,” Ye said.

The crew were then flown to Beijing, arriving at 5:06 a.m. Eastern on Saturday morning.

Shenzhou-13 astronaut Wang Yaping embraced her daughter after returning to Beijing, April 16, 2022.
Shenzhou-13 astronaut Wang Yaping embraced her daughter after returning to Beijing, April 16, 2022. Credit: CMSA/CCTV/framegrab

Huang Weifen, chief designer of the astronaut system of China’s human spaceflight program, noted that the astronauts were in good shape. “Judging from the current status of the astronauts, we can say that our training and our support services were effective,” Huang said.

The mission has demonstrated Chinese capabilities to conduct long-term human spaceflight missions, while also preparing future missions as emergency standbys.

China is already gearing up for the next crewed mission. The Tianzhou-4 cargo spacecraft and its Long March 7 launch vehicle are now at the Wenchang spaceport, south China, being prepared for launch next month.

Tianzhou-4 will deliver supplies and propellant to Tianhe to support the Shenzhou-14 crewed mission, expected to launch from Jiuquan in June. That mission will also welcome the arrival of two new modules, Wentian and Mengtian, expected to launch early in the second half of the year.

The two new modules will dock with Tianhe and complete the T-shaped, three-module orbital outpost.

The Shenzhou-13 crew were also aboard Tianhe for transposition tests in which the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft was used as an analog for the new space station modules.

The mission was utilized in cultural events for domestic audiences, including an appearance in the flagship Lunar New Year live television show.

The astronauts also interacted with young participants at an Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America event on space exploration held April 9. 

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...