Shenzhou 14 astronauts from China have given over management of the Tiangong space station and returned to Earth.
The safe return concludes a six-month mission in which astronauts Chen Dong, Liu Yang, and Cai Xuzhe oversaw the arrival of Tiangong's second and third modules and performed three spacewalks to inspect and test the new facilities.
The three astronauts radioed that they were fine shortly after landing, and the news was met with enthusiasm at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center (BACC).
The crew participated in the nation's first crew handover prior to departure, allowing the Shenzhou 14 and Shenzhou 15 crews to spend five days together onboard thanks to the addition of the new Wentian and Mengtian modules to the Tianhe core module. It was the first time China had six astronauts in space simultaneously.
Shenzhou 14 launched on June 5 of this year and arrived at the solitary Tianhe module 6.5 hours later. However, the crew leaves behind the three-module, T-shaped Tiangong space station, which is finished and fully functional.
At 182 days, the mission is China's longest to date, matching the Shenzhou 13 mission. Chen Dong, the mission commander, also set a new Chinese record for cumulative time spent in space, becoming the country's first astronaut to spend more than 200 days in space. During the Shenzhou 11 trip in 2016, Chen spent 33 days aboard the Tiangong 2 test space lab, a prototype for the bigger Tiangong modules.
Shenzhou 14 was the third crewed mission to Tiangong, which began with the Tianhe core module and launched in April 2021. Shenzhou 12, the first crewed visit to Tianhe, took off in June 2021 and landed 92 days later.
The recently launched Shenzhou 15 mission, which will be fueled by the Tianzhou 5 ship, will also last for about six months. The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center already has the spacecraft for the upcoming flight. According to China's official space news site, Shenzhou 16 has been constructed, tested, and is ready to launch to Tiangong in case of an emergency.
Shenzhou 15 and Tianzhou 5 are currently docked to the finished Tiangong station.
The Tiangong Space Station, when fully loaded, could have a weight of around 220,500 lbs, or roughly one-fifth the mass of the ISS.
In the upcoming years, there may be commercial missions, international astronauts, and even tourist visits to the orbital outpost, which the nation intends to maintain permanently inhabited and operational for at least 10 years.