Image: Search team approaches Chinese space capsule
Ren Junchuan  /  Xinhua via AP
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, members of the search team approach the re-entry capsule of China's Shenzhou 9 spacecraft in Siziwang Banner of north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, June 29.
updated 6/28/2012 11:01:27 PM ET 2012-06-29T03:01:27

Three Chinese astronauts have returned to Earth after spending 13 days on a historic space mission that made their country only the third nation ever to dock a manned spacecraft to another craft in orbit.

The Shenzhou 9 space capsule landed at about 10 p.m. ET (10 a.m. Friday, Beijing time) in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China. The astronauts left the Tiangong 1 prototype space lab module a day earlier.

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Their landing was broadcast live on China's state-run CCTV television network, showing the capsule streaking through the atmosphere like a meteor, deploying its main parachute, then making a final landing before rolling over on its side.

The mission, which included successful displays of manual and automatic dockings, represented an important leap forward for China's space program. The nation aims to construct a space station in orbit by the year 2020. [Photos of Shenzhou 9 Mission]

"Chinese astronauts have their own home in space now," mission commander Jing Haipeng said from space during a special call from Chinese president Hu Jintao on Tuesday. "We are proud of our country!"

PhotoBlog: China's Shenzhou 9 crew returns to Earth

While the orbital linkups are important technological achievements for China, the mission also carried a wider social impact, because it included the country's first female astronaut, 33-year-old Liu Yang. The mission was commanded by veteran Chinese astronaut Jing Haibeng. The third crew member, Liu Wang, served as the Shenzhou 9 docking pilot.

The Shenzhou 9 mission, which launched into space on June 16, accomplished China's first manned space dockings. The Shenzhou spacecraft robotically docked to Tiangong 1 on June 18. Then, on June 24, the astronauts backed their capsule away from the orbiting module and came back in for another docking under manual control.

The successful linkups made China only the third country, after the United States and Russia, to accomplish manned dockings in orbit.

The Shenzhou 9 mission, as well as experiments performed aboard Tiangong 1 throughout the flight, tested technologies that will help China fulfill its goal of building a 60-ton space station in orbit by 2020. "The data will help us improve technologies for astronauts' future, long-term stays in a space station," said Chen Shanguang, chief commander of the mission's astronaut system, according to Xinhua.

China does not have a role on the International Space Station, a 430-ton outpost in low Earth orbit that is jointly operated by 15 nations. But Chinese officials have outlined an ambitious space program for the nation, which includes collecting samples from the moon and robotically returning them to Earth before landing astronauts on the lunar surface.

The Shenzhou 9 mission is China's fourth manned spaceflight. Previous expeditions were launched in 2003, 2005 and 2008.

The Tiangong 1 test module was launched into orbit in September 2011. In November, a robotic spacecraft, called Shenzhou 8, completed the country's first unmanned space docking. According to Chinese officials, Tiangong 1 has performed well, and could play host to another crew in the near future.

"Based on current conditions, the service of Tiangong 1 can be extended," Xinhua quoted He Yu, the commander-in-chief for the Shenzhou 9 mission, as saying. "It has consumed less than one-fourth of its fuel and no backup systems have been used."

Depending on its condition, the module could remain in orbit as China continues its space station construction efforts.

"If Tiangong 1 was in perfect shape, it could work side by side with Tiangong 2, which will be launched in the future," He said.

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Video: Chinese spacecraft returns to Earth

  1. Closed captioning of: Chinese spacecraft returns to Earth

    >>> big celebration in china. just look at how happy they are in mission control . their space capsule completed its mission carrying china's first ever female astronaut. remember americans were the only astronauts to splash down back when we sent people into space. other countries land on land and in this case in the desert of mongolia. it's a hard landing, but they emerged okay, and, as a result, everybody got a lawn chair when the mission was over.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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