Two Chinese astronauts who have spent a month in orbit in China’s longest manned mission have started their journey back home, state media reported
Astronauts Jing Haipeng, 50, and Chen Dong, 37, left the Tiangong-2 space laboratory on Thursday afternoon and boarded a landing module, which will carry them back to earth, the Xinhua news agency reported.
The module is expected to descend from its orbit on Friday before touching down in a landing area in Inner Mongolia.
It would be the first time that Chinese astronauts had returned from an altitude of 393km, where the country’s planned space station would be running, Xinhua said.
An exercise broadcast on the state-run China Central Television showed a team of helicopters and search crew working to locate a model of the landing craft on the grasslands.
The two astronauts finished their last day’s work in Tiangong-2 and cleaned the space lab on Wednesday to prepare for their return, CCTV reported.
“We have been living and working here for 30 days, and it is like our home in space,” Chen said during an interview with the state-run news agency Xinhua on Tuesday. “It is a bit hard for me to leave here.”
The astronauts will bring back the silkworms and lettuce plants they kept in the space lab, Xinhua reported.
Six silkworms were taken into space for an experiment designed by Hong Kong students to study how the larvae transform in a weightless environment.
Samples of the astronauts’ urine and saliva as well as bacteria they collected from the atmosphere will also be brought back for scientific analysis.
The Shenzhou-11 spacecraft carried the pair into space on October 17 before docking with Tiangong-2 two days later.
During the one-month stay in the space lab, the astronauts carried out dozens of experiments, including one studying human’s cardiovascular functions in space.
The mission’s commander Jing, who is on his third space trip, celebrated his 50th birthday in space.
A successful completion of the month-long mission will take the country a step closer towards the goal of building a fully functioning space station by 2022.
A major task for the mission was to test the technology used to build and operate a space station orbiting 393km above the earth, according to Xinhua.
China launched a powerful new type of rocket earlier this month which will be used to carry the core module of its future space station into space.
The latest manned mission, the country’s first since 2013, has led to an outpouring of national pride on the internet and in the media in China.
A series of “space journal” videos published by Xinhua documenting the astronauts’ life in space have been watched more than 100 million times, according to the news agency.