In the early hours of Sunday, June 4, following the half-year Shenzhou-15 mission, the astronauts from China’s Tiangong space station made a safe return to Earth. The capsule, ferrying three astronauts, successfully touched down north of the Jiuquan Spaceport in the Gobi Desert, according to reports from Chinese state media.
Chinese taikonauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming, and Zhang Lu had spent 186 days aboard the Tiangong orbital station. Just days prior, they were succeeded by a fresh crew under the Shenzhou-16 mission. This mission, launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Tuesday, May 30, marked a departure from previous Shenzhou programme missions as it included the first civilian in history, Professor Gui Haichao.
During their tenure aboard the orbital facility, the Shenzhou-15 crew conducted various tests, examinations, and maintenance work. In one notable instance in February, they undertook a seven-hour spacewalk. Fei Junlong and Zhang Lu were responsible for a series of technical tasks on the Mengtian external laboratory module. Meanwhile, the third member, Deng Qingming, provided assistance from within the station.
The Tiangong station forms a key part of China’s ambition for sustained human presence in Earth orbit. The decision to construct the station came after China’s exclusion from the International Space Station (ISS), primarily due to US concerns about the close ties between China’s space programs and the country’s People’s Liberation Army, controlled by the ruling Communist Party of China. According to Chinese authorities, the “Heavenly Palace” is expected to operate in low Earth orbit for at least another decade.
The rapid advancement of China’s space programme is noteworthy. The country launched its first astronaut into space in 2003, followed by a lunar lander touching down on the far side of the Moon in 2019. In 2021, China achieved its first robotic landing on Mars. A manned lunar mission is anticipated by 2030.