Image credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China’s Shenzhou-14 astronauts are returning to Earth on Sunday, December 4th, but the welcoming ground recovery teams face super-cold conditions at the Gobi Desert landing site.

According to the China Central Television (CCTV) the taikonaut trio — Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe — are landing at night at a temperature of minus 25 degrees Celsius. It’s also the first time for the on-site team to conduct search and rescue at night.

Image credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

A final all-system, comprehensive recovery drill for the end of the Shenzhou-14 mission was carried out on Thursday night at the Dongfeng landing site in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

A dozen search and rescue teams, five helicopter and more than 60 vehicles set out to their designated areas from the rendezvous point, CCTV reports.

Image credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

All-system drill

“Earlier, we did intensive trainings according to terrain and weather conditions in the mission area, on equipment use and the skills and physical and mental health conditions of our helicopter pilots. At present, the personnel and equipment are tuned to the best conditions,” said Chen Shi, commander of the search and rescue team.

The astronaut medical support team, an important part of the landing site system, has been training in their position for a month.

“Through this full-simulation all-system drill, we will genuinely do a scrupulous, reliable job in medical support throughout the entire landing process,” said Xu Chong, director of astronaut medical supervision and support office at the China Astronaut Research and Training Center.

Image credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

In-orbit lifespan

“The current arrangement is for the astronauts to return in the same spacecraft that they used when fling to space, since they are most familiar with the state of that spacecraft. In addition, our spacecraft itself has an in-orbit lifespan,” said Ren Changwei, chief designer of general assembly of manned space program with the China Academy of Space Technology.

“Currently, the designed in-orbit lifespan of the spacecraft is no less than six months,” said Ren. “As Shenzhou-14 has basically reached its normal life expectancy, the astronauts will take this spacecraft to return.”

The Shenzhou-14 crew. Credit: China National Space Administration (CNSA)/China Central Television (CCTV)

Toughest recovery

“We have undertaken a dozen missions of searching and retrieving Shenzhou spacecraft returning capsules, and this would be the toughest one in my opinion. The extreme temperature can be as low as around minus 26 degree Celsius, and the low temperature will make some troubles for our equipment and for all the personnel involved physically,” said Chen, commander of the recovery team.

The helicopter search and rescue team has finished 14 rounds of training on night flying and landing. The ground searching squad also carried out readiness appraisals for quick reaction at night.

“We have carried out a four-phase intensified training for four weeks in a row since entering the site. So far, our flight duration has topped 80 hours, and our aim is to adapt our pilots to varying complicated and difficult conditions, and we surely have the confidence to bring our heroic astronauts back to the arms of our mother country both safely and warmly,” Chen said.

Shenzhou-14, Shenzhou-15 crew members in handover ceremony.
Credit: CMS/CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Crew handover

The Shenzhou-14 taikonauts were launched on June 5 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Six months later, the Shenzhou-14 crew achieved a number of firsts, including the first in-orbit docking of two 20-ton space modules, the Wentian and Mengtian, and the first two-hour fast autonomous docking of a cargo spaceship. The crew coordinated with the ground to finish building the basic structure of the T-shaped space station.

T-shape configuration of China space station.
Credit: CNSA/CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Early on Wednesday morning, six taikonauts of the Shenzhou-14 and -15 missions had their historic gathering in the China Space Station, marking a first in China’s aerospace history, after the Shenzhou-15 piloted spacecraft was launched.

The Shenzhou-15 commander Fei Junlong, along with two newcomers, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu – made a 6.5 hours long “fast automated rendezvous and docking” with the country’s orbital complex on November 30.

The handover in orbit, from the three Shenzhou-14 crew to the Shenzhou-15 crew, was set to take about five days.

For videos detailing the Shenzhou-14 landing preparations, go to:

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