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Friday, November 18, 2016, 22:09

Shenzhou-11 return capsule touches down

By Agencies
Shenzhou-11 return capsule touches down
Shenzhou-11 return capsule touches down in Inner Mongolia on Nov 18, 2016. (Xinhua)

BEIJING - A pair of Chinese astronauts have returned from a month-long stay in the country's space station, China's sixth and longest crewed mission to date.

The return capsule of the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft was found in the main landing area in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region at 2:07 p.m

Veteran mission commander Jing Haipeng and first-time space traveler Chen Dong landed in their Shenzhou 11 return vehicle in the main landing area in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region at 2:07 pm Beijing Time, according to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.

Jing and Chen opened the capsule's hatch by themselves. The two astronauts were reported by the ground team to be in good condition. They and the reentry module will later be transferred to Beijing.

They had spent 30 days aboard the Tiangong 2 station conducting experiments and testing equipment in preparation for the launching of the station's core module in 2018. A fully functioning, permanently crewed space station is on course to begin operation six years from now and slated to run for a decade.

The Tiangong 2 that launched on Sept 15 is orbiting 393 kilometers above the earth.

Zhang Youxia, commander-in-chief of China's manned space program, announced that the Shenzhou-11 mission was a "complete success."

The success of the mission "indicates that our manned space program has achieved major new progress and is the latest achievement in building a country of innovation and a world power of science and technology," the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee, the Cabinet and the party commission controlling the military said in a congratulatory message.

Shenzhou-11 return capsule touches down
Astronauts Jing Haipeng (left) and Chen Dong arrive in Beijing, capital of China, Nov 18, 2016.(Photo/Xinhua)

"It is the newest achievement of Chinese people in climbing the peak of the world," said the letter, read out by Vice Premier Zhao Gaoli at the space flight control center in Beijing.

Shenzhou-11 was China's sixth manned spacecraft, and also the country's longest mission to date.

After its launch on Oct 17, the spacecraft docked two days later with China's first space lab, Tiangong-2, where the two astronauts lived for 30 days.

The mission transported personnel and materials between Earth and Tiangong-2, and tested meeting, docking and return processes.

It conducted aerospace medical experiments, space science experiments and in-orbit maintenance.

The two astronauts also conducted three experiments designed by middle school students from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, including raising silkworms in space.

It was the third space mission for 50-year-old veteran Jing Haipeng, the commander of the crew, who also participated in the Shenzhou-7 and Shenzhou-9 missions.

It was the first space mission for Chen, 38.

The mission is a key step toward China's aim of building a permanent manned space station.

Shenzhou-11 return capsule touches down
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, ground crew check on the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou 11 spacecraft after it landed in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Nov 18, 2016. (Ren Junchuan/Xinhua via AP)

The core module of China's space station is expected to be launched around 2018, and the space station will enter into full service around 2022, with an initial designed life of at least 10 years.

It will accommodate three to six astronauts, who will stay in space up to one year.

Tiangong-2 will remain operative in orbit following Shenzhou-11's return to Earth and will wait to dock with Tianzhou-1, China's first cargo spacecraft. Tianzhou-1 will be launched in April 2017 to verify refueling technology, a key technology for any space station.

Since first launching a human into space 13 years ago, China has launched two space stations, staged a spacewalk, landed a rover on the moon and is now considering sending a crewed lunar mission.

The Tiangong, or "Heavenly Palace," space stations are considered stepping stones to a mission to send a rover to Mars by the end of the decade. Communications with the disused experimental Tiangong 1 station have been cut and it is expected to burn up on entering the atmosphere next year.

Shenzhou-11 return capsule touches down
Shenzhou-11 return capsule touches down in Inner Mongolia on Nov 18, 2016. ( Photo / Xinhua)

An official from the Astronaut Center of China said Friday that China will start a third round of astronaut selection in 2017.

Huang Weifen, deputy chief designer of the astronaut system with the center, made the announcement at a press conference after the Tiangong-2 and Shenzhou-11 mission came to completion on Friday afternoon.

In preparation for the manned space station program, the new selection process will pick candidates from air force pilots, space engineers and technical staff in aerospace-related fields.

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