China Astronauts Return Safely From 15-Day Space Lab Mission
June 26, 2013

China Astronauts Return Safely From 15-Day Space Lab Mission

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Fifteen days after launching toward a successful mission aboard the Tiangong-1 space lab, three Chinese astronauts returned safely to Earth, touching down in their Shenzhou 10 capsule at 8:07 am local time on June 26 in the grasslands of north China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

The astronauts, Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping, spent nearly two weeks aboard the Chinese space lab conducting science and physics experiments and also successfully conducting the country’s first test flight around the space module. This was the country’s fifth space mission and definitely the longest.

Nie was first to exit the spacecraft, nearly 90 minutes after touching down. His safe return marks a record for longest time spent in space by a Chinese astronaut, with more than 470 hours over two missions. Before departing the space station, each of the astronauts used sign language to express their gratitude to ground-staff and for others who may follow in their footsteps.

Tuesday’s test flight around the space lab was to gain experience for future missions where spacecraft would likely dock from multiple angles. A spokesman for the space program told China Daily the “first circling and rendezvous test was successful, and we have achieved our expected result.”

The Chinese space agency plans to build a much larger version of its current space lab, which will become known as Tiangong-2. Bao Weimin, the technological division chief for China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, said the space station could have multiple docking ports, requiring spacecraft to dock from different directions, so the tests are important.

The circling experiment was also a test of the ground staff’s ability to maneuver vessels, as well as a test of the spacecraft’s performance. "It's the same as piloting a jet. The pilot will always want to develop better skills to control the jet, so that he can be flexible when tough situations arise," an unnamed space expert noted.

Tuesday’s return to Earth also marks the end of Tiangong-1 space missions. The lab was sent into orbit less than two years ago, on September 29, 2011. The space lab, designed for a two-year lifespan, has so far spent 634 days in orbit. The lab has accommodated six astronauts over two missions, and has had an additional unmanned spacecraft dock with it in late 2011.

The space lab, while being decommissioned, has enough fuel to remain in space for another two years. However, space officials have not revealed what additional tasks Tiangong-1 will be used for.

China first sent an astronaut into space in 2003. While the space agency is still in its infancy, it has come a long way in just a decade. Government engineers have also expressed interest in sending a Chinese astronaut to the moon in the future.