The crew of China’s Shenzhou 13 mission is preparing to make a return voyage to earth from its lengthy off-planet excursion.
When the record-setting trio does land safely back in Dongfeng, Inner Mongolia, in mid-April, they’d have spent more than six months in space. This smashes the relatively young Chinese space program’s previous record of a little more than three months.
The crew, made up of Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu, was shuttled into space in October 2021 from the Jiuquan launch site in China’s sparsely populated Gobi Desert.
Several hours later, the trio successfully docked with China’s Tiangong Station. Since then, the three astronauts, led by commanding officer Zhai Zhigang, have completed more than 20 scientific studies, given two interactive lectures and carried out a pair of spacewalks.
For the members of Shenzhou 13, their remaining days in space will be spent preparing the craft for the next visitors, the crew of Shenzhou 14. In September last year, a cargo shipment onboard the Tianzhou 3 was delivered to the space station in preparation for Shenzhen 14’s arrival.
Zhong Weiwei, an associate research fellow with the Astronaut Center of China, told state media that the crew of Shenzhou 13 would have to unpack and sort through nearly six tons of supplies and provisions onboard the unmanned Tianzhou 3 cargo ship.
In addition to preparing the space station’s core module for its new inhabitants, the crew also has to secure all samples and data collected from experiments for the return voyage.
Wang and Zhai, a Shenzhou 7 spaceflight veteran, conducted the mission’s first spacewalk in November 2021. The duo was tasked with installing a robotic arm and other accompanying fixtures to the space station.
In the process Wang achieved a milestone herself, becoming the first Chinese female to conduct a spacewalk. The extravehicular activity lasted more than six hours.
In December of the same year, Zhai and Ye conducted the mission’s second and final spacewalk. The equally long mission entailed the two men installing foot platforms for added stability and increased mobility during extravehicular operations, as well as deploying an external panoramic camera.
Shenzhou 13’s mission also involved two live lectures given by the crewmates. In December 2021, the three astronauts held a lesson and conducted several experiments. China’s National Space Administration intended the lessons to inspire the next generation of young Chinese astronauts.
In March 2022, a second lecture took place. This time, the crew took live questions from curious viewers after another series of lessons.
Interactive events by the Shenzhou 13 crew highlighted China’s competencies and technological advancements in the nation’s space program, said Molly Silk, a doctoral researcher of Chinese space policy at Manchester University. Silk said that events were a source of national pride and encouraged youths to appreciate the sciences.
No fixed date for the crew’s return has been given but Zhou Jianping, head of the country’s human spaceflight programme, told media in March that the Shenzhou mission will deorbit over the Gobi Desert, close to the craft’s launch site in Jiuquan.