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China’s Shenzhou-9 crew returns to Earth

The capsule carrying the crew of China’s Shenzhou-9 spacecraft has successfully landed in the country’s Inner Mongolia region after 13 days in space. The success of the mission brings China a step closer to creating its own manned space station.

The capsule was carrying three taikonauts, among them the first Chinese woman in space, Liu Yang.

Shenzhou-9 was launched on June 16 and later docked with Tiangong-1 orbital station. The first Chinese manual docking was carried out as planned. While in space the taikonauts performed a series of scientific experiments.

Live images of the capsule’s safe landing in the grassland of Inner Mongolia’s Siziwang county have been shown on Chinese state television.

Most of the media spotlight is on 33-year-old Liu, an air force pilot who was recruited to be a taikonaut in May 2010. Chinese space program officials have proudly declared that China’s first female astronaut’s entire training program was carried out in China.

The latest mission was the fourth manned flight for China and the first time the crew manually docked with the station.

The Tiangong-1 orbital station, however, is only a prototype as China plans to replace it with a permanent, larger, space station by 2020.

Although China began its space program in the 1950s, the first manned space flight was not launched until 2003 when Shenzhou-5 with taikonaut Yang Liwei onboard went into space.

If China’s ambitious space plans are successful, the country will become the second country in the world currently conducting regular flights to a space station.

At the moment Russia is the only nation regularly taking spacecraft to the International Space Station, as the US halted its space missions in 2011. The last NASA shuttle made its voyage to the ISS last July, wrapping up a 30-year program.