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China spacecraft returns to Earth

28 September 08 11:24 GMT

China's Shenzhou VII space capsule has returned to Earth after a successful mission orbiting the planet.

The spacecraft touched down in the Mongolian desert to rapturous applause from mission control in Beijing.

Looking well, the three astronauts emerged to wave to cameras before being given bouquets of flowers.

While in orbit, the men conducted experiments said to be crucial to China's space programme, as well as its first space walk.

Mission leader and fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang, 42, was first to emerge from the capsule, and is now set to be greeted as a national hero.

"It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end," he said.

"The result is a huge achievement. On behalf of the motherland, I am very proud," he said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who was watching at mission control, applauded warmly and called the three men heroes.

"The complete success of the manned Shenzhou VII is a great stride forward for China's space technology," he said.

Great pride

During Saturday's space-walk, Mr Zhai stayed outside the capsule for 15 minutes while his two fellow astronauts stayed inside.

The exercise was seen as key to China's ambition to build an orbiting station in the next few years.

Mr Zhai wore a Chinese-made spacesuit thought to have cost between £5m and £20m ($10m-$40m) for the space walk.

The "yuhangyuan" (astronaut) was tethered to the capsule with an umbilical cable.

The Shenzhou VII capsule soared into orbit on a Long March II-F rocket from Jiuquan spaceport in north-west China on 25 September.

China became only the third nation after the United States and Russia to independently put a man in space when Yang Liwei, another fighter pilot, went into orbit on the Shenzhou V mission in October 2003.

Two years later, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng completed a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI.

Chinese media report that this latest mission is the "most critical step" in the country's "three-step" space programme.

These stages are: sending a human into orbit, docking spacecraft together to form a small laboratory and, ultimately, building a large space station.

The Shenzhou VIII and IX missions are expected to help set up a space laboratory complex in 2010.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.

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