Cai Yang/Xinhua via AP
BEIJING — Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Saturday after six months aboard their country’s new orbital station in the longest crewed mission to date for China’s ambitious space program.
The Shenzhou 13 space capsule landed in the Gobi Desert in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, broadcast live on state television.
During the mission, astronaut Wang Yaping performed the first spacewalk by a Chinese woman. Wang and his teammates Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guangfu broadcast physics lessons for high school students.
China launched its first astronaut into space in 2003 and landed robot rovers on the Moon in 2013 and Mars last year. Officials have discussed a possible crewed mission to the Moon.
On Saturday, state television showed footage from inside the capsule as it traveled 200 meters per second over Africa before entering the atmosphere.
The trio were the second crew aboard Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace. Its main module, Tianhe, was launched in April 2021. Plans are to complete construction this year by adding two more modules.
Authorities have not yet announced a date for the launch of Tiangong’s next crew.
China is barred from the International Space Station due to US unease that its space program will be run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army.
China was the third country to launch an astronaut into space on its own after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Tiangong is China’s third space station after its predecessors launched in 2011 and 2016.
The government announced in 2020 that China’s first reusable spacecraft had landed after a test flight, but no photos or details of the vehicle have been released.
On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping visited the Wenchang launch site on the southern island of Hainan, from which the Tianhe module was launched into orbit.
“Persist in pursuing the frontiers of global aerospace development and major national aerospace strategic needs,” Xi told staff at the site, all in military uniform.