Chinese astronauts return to Earth

Beijing: China`s astronaut trio, including its first woman cosmonaut, returned to Earth today after accomplishing the critical manoeuvre of manual space docking, a milestone that helped it join the exclusive US-Russia club and gave a boost to its plan to build a space station by 2020.

Watched anxiously by Premier Wen Jiabao and other top leaders at the control room here, the Shenzhou-9 (Divine Grace) spacecraft carrying the three astronauts had a bumpy but safe touchdown in grasslands of Inner Mongolia as it withstood severe heat and friction during the re-entry phase following a 13-day space rendezvous.

The metallic parachute ejected 10 km above the earth slowing down re-entry vehicle and it landed with a big thud on the ground at a designated spot. After the touchdown of the Shenzhou-9, it took about an hour for the astronauts to emerge out from their modest re-entry capsule.

Jing Haipeng, commander of the Shenzhou-9 crew, was the first to come out, followed by 33-year-old Liu Wang and the country`s first woman astronaut Liu Yang. There were big cheers all around as a smiling Liu, an airforce pilot, emerged out of the tiny opening. The three, who were carried on chairs, greeted the official media and later flown to Beijing for medical checks.

The re-entry phase which took place in less than five minutes was telecast live to highlight the "crowning" achievement of the decade-long stint of the present leadership of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) headed by President Hu Jintao and Wen who would be retiring later this year to pave the way for the next generation.

The successful space programme as well as the record 7,000-metre dive into the deep sea by submersible Jiaolong (mythical dragon) last week in the Pacific Ocean to help China to scurry the bottom of seas for rich mineral resources were flaunted as major achievements under CPC to enable China to attain the superpower status to rival United States.

From the text book launch to the safe return of its astronauts after the 13-day stint, the longest space mission by China during which it successfully experimented the manual docking with Tiangong-1 lab module currently orbiting the Earth, completes the critical phase in China`s plan to establish a 60-tonne space station to rival the International Space Station (ISS) Mir operated by Russia and US.

China plans to set up the space station by 2020, by which time Mir would set to retire making the Tiangong (Heavenly Place) the only station in the space.

Chinese space scientists say China was forced to chalk out its own space course as it was excluded from ISS space programme.

In his congratulatory note delivered on behalf of the country`s leadership, Wen said the successful rendezvous and docking between the target orbiter Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft marks a significant breakthrough in China`s space docking technology, and it also marks decisive progress in fulfilling the second strategic target of China`s manned space programme.

Shenzhou-9 was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre on June 16. On June 24, the three Chinese astronauts successfully completed a manual docking regarded as crucial manoeuvre during emergencies, the first such attempt in China`s history of space exploration.

The spacecraft and the space lab were previously joined in an automated docking on June 18. The three astronauts also conducted a series of scientific tests during their space flight.