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Monday, 1 April, 2002, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
China's spacecraft returns
Chinese security personnel surround the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou III which landed in Inner Mongolia
Tight security surrounds the space misson
China's latest unmanned spacecraft has returned successfully to Earth, prompting speculation that China may move to manned space flights as early as next year.

The Shenzhou III module touched down as planned in Inner Mongolia after a mission designed to test life support systems on board the craft.

Chinese officials described the week-long mission as a "complete success", saying it had laid a solid basis for future manned spacecraft.

Shenzhou I AFP
Details about the first mission were given out only after a safe landing
China is aiming to put a human in space by the year 2005, but analysts now believe China could act sooner.

They say the first "taikonauts", as they are often called to distinguish them from Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, will be sent up aboard either Shenzhou IV or V, possibly next year.

The longer-term goal which the Chinese space agency has set itself is to put humans on the Moon by 2010.

Animal testing

The Shenzhou III test flight carried a device known as an "artificial human" - a dummy covered in sensors which would continuously monitor things like oxygen levels and temperature which are crucial to human survival.

Shenzhou II AP
Shenzhou II orbited Earth 108 times
The mission, China's third test flight, took off from the Jiuquan launch centre in northern Gansu province on 25 March, making it the longest flight in the series.

"The successful launches of three Shenzhou spaceships take the country to new heights of space science and technology," Chinese President Jiang Zemin was quoted as saying after witnessing the launch.

The first test flight of the Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) programme was in November 1999, when a capsule orbited the Earth 14 times in a 12-hour mission aimed at testing launch and re-entry systems.

Shenzhou II, launched in January 2001, circled the Earth 108 times and tested life support systems - it put a monkey, a dog, a rabbit and snails into orbit.

It returned nearly a week later to a press blackout that left Western analysts suspecting a re-entry failure. The Chinese authorities denied this.

See also:

26 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
China celebrates successful launch
18 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Space animals make safe return
15 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
China pleased with space mission
22 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
China joins space club
22 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
China's Soviet space heritage
03 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Taikonauts 'ready for 2001'
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