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China’s Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its three-member crew has returned to Earth with a jarring, rolling ground landing in Inner Mongolia at 10:05 local time (02:05 GMT). While in space, the crew successfully carried out their 13-day mission, accomplishing a manual docking with the Tiangong-1 laboratory module and performing a series of experiments. The crew included the first Chinese woman in space, 33-year-old female fighter pilot Liu Yang, along with commander Jing Haipeng, and Liu Wang.
The China National Space Agency said the mission was a key step towards their goal of building a space station by 2020.
The crew launched on June 16, docked with the space laboratory in an automated fashion on June 18 and lived and worked in the module for several days doing medical experiments along with studies of live butterflies, butterfly eggs and pupae. Later, they undocked and then did a manual docking, an important test of the procedure which would be used in the event of a failure with the automated system. While the US and Russia have done manual dockings since the 1960’s, it is still regarded as a difficult maneuver, bringing two orbiting vessels traveling at thousands of kilometers an hour close together, and then linking them.
The 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 is designed to stay in space for at least 2 years and support crews of up to three astronauts for short duration stays. One more manned mission is planned to visit, Shenzhou 10.
The planned new space station will weigh about 60 tons and be about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station, and just slightly smaller than NASA’s Skylab that was operational in the 1970s.
China launched their first taikonaut into space in 2003, had a two-man mission and in 2005, with three taikonauts flying to space in 2008, a mission that featured the country’s first spacewalk.
A white paper released last December outlining China’s ambitious space program said the country “will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.”