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China's taikonauts return from heavenly palace after 92-day mission

Plenty more launches planned to attach another couple of modules

The first crewed mission to China's space station has ended successfully.

Taikonauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo returned to Earth last week, after their Shenzhou 12 capsule descended beneath parachutes and touched the soil of Inner Mongolia.

The trio spent 90 days docked at China's Tiangong space station, a facility the nation says will soon be permanently crewed. The three taikonauts undertook many tasks to make that possible, among them a pair of spacewalks to ready the station for the connection of more modules.

Tiangong is currently comprised of just one module: Tianhe is 16.6 metres long, 4.2 metres in diameter, and includes life support hardware.

China plans to fit two more modules in 2022, and eleven launches to build the station into its final "T-shaped" form.

One of those missions, Tianzhou-2, launched in May. Once the three taikonauts left the station, it repositioned itself from Tiangong's rear docking port to its forward port. The automated procedure took four hours.

The crewed mission set all sorts of spaceflight duration records for China, with commander Nie Haisheng becoming the first Chinese citizen to travel into space twice. He's now clocked up 111 days outside the surly bonds of Earth – a span that places him 168th on the all-time ranking of human space-dwellers.

China's keen to have more crew spend time in space for strategic, scientific, and publicity purposes. Tiangong is considered a testbed that will have a life of around a decade. The nation hasn't announced firm plans for a successor station, but is researching the feasibility of larger outposts – including a lunar base built in co-operation with Russia. ®

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