Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after achieving China's most complex and longest operations in orbit, major steps forward in the country's effort to build a space station by 2020.
The return of the trio, including the country's first female astronaut, to a landing zone in a remote and sandy area of northern China was broadcast to a national audience on state television network CCTV.
The return capsule of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which lifted off on June 16, hit the ground about 10:00 am (0200 GMT), after an approach slowed by a large parachute.
Rescue workers quickly surrounded and opened the capsule, which had turned on its side and looked charred on the outside.
All three astronauts were in good physical condition, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, as CCTV showed them being carried out of the capsule on chairs, smiling and waving to the cameras.
The crew had successfully carried out China's first manual space docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 module, a difficult move that is essential in the process of building a space station -- which Beijing aims to do by 2020.
The manoeuvre -- completed by the Americans and Russians in the 1960s -- requires two vessels orbiting Earth at thousands of kilometres (miles) per hour to come together very gently to avoid destroying each other.
It was the main goal of the mission, China's fourth manned trip to space.
Morris Jones, an Australia-based independent expert on the Chinese space programme, said the length of the space flight -- the crew spent most of the 13 days in the Tiangong-1 -- was more significant than the manual space docking.
"This is China's longest and most complex space flight to date," Jones said.
"The most important thing about the mission is something they haven't said openly and it's the fact that this Tiangong laboratory is more than just a laboratory. It is a proper space station, albeit a very small one."
China sees its space programme as a symbol of its rising global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
Jones and other experts agreed that the success of Shenzhou-9, which means Divine Vessel in Chinese, had helped cement China's status in these areas.
"By demonstrating that they master (these procedures), China fully enters the club of big powers in human occupation (of space)", said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a space expert at France's National Centre for Scientific Research.
"The political objectives for the space programme -- to be able to demonstrate indisputable technological and scientific competence -- have been reached."
The Shenzhou-9 crew was headed by Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut on his third space mission.
Liu Wang carried out the manual docking and the third crew member was Liu Yang, the first woman China has sent into space. The 33-year-old air force pilot has been hailed as a national heroine.
by Boris Cambreleng Â© 2012 AFP
Date: Jun 29, 2012