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Trio of Chinese astronauts back to Earth after Beijing's longest space mission

Trio of Chinese astronauts back to Earth after Beijing's longest space mission
Astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, seen here before their launch on June 17, departed the Tiangong space station Thursday and landed in the Gobi Desert on Friday.  File Photo by Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE

Sept. 17 (UPI) -- After spending three months living in orbit aboard Beijing's space station, three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after completing the country's longest human space mission in history.

The trio touched down in the Gobi Desert in China on their Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and were met by crews in military helicopters and off-road vehicles.

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The astronauts -- Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo -- departed the Tiangong station early on Thursday. Officials said the crew were in space for 90 days, three times longer than any previous Chinese human mission.

The three were released from the spacecraft and spent a short time sitting in reclining chairs nearby to reacclimate to Earth's gravity.

After landing, Nie said he expects more Chinese astronauts will follow their achievements, set new records and "reach new heights."

The astronauts left the Earth on June 17 and arrived at the Tianhe module of the space station. Tianhe, which is Chinese for "harmony of the heavens," was sent into space in April aboard a Long March 5-B rocket.

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During their time in low Earth orbit, the astronauts performed two spacewalks to help build the 54-foot-long module and deployed a mechanical arm at the station. They also participated in a video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

RELATED China launches core module of space station on Long March 5-B rocket

Beijing plans to launch two more modules into space to complete the space station. Tiangong is Chinese for "heavenly palace." China will need a total of 11 successful launches, four manned missions and four cargo vessel flights to finish the station by next year.

Officials expect to launch the Tianzhou-3 cargo craft later this month and Shenzhou-13 for a six-month-long crewed mission in October.

RELATED China pursues new space station 'after 2024' following Tiangong-1 crash

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