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.
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!"
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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