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Chinese astronauts return to Earth

China's astronaut trio, including its first woman cosmonaut, returned to Earth after accomplishing the critical manoeuvre of manual space docking.

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China's astronaut trio, including its first woman cosmonaut, returned to Earth on Friday after accomplishing the critical manoeuvre of manual space docking, a milestone that helped it join the exclusive US-Russia club and gave a boost to its plan to build a space station by 2020.

Watched anxiously by Premier Wen Jiabao and other top leaders at the control room here, the Shenzhou-9 (Divine Grace) spacecraft carrying the three astronauts had a bumpy but safe touchdown in grasslands of Inner Mongolia as it withstood severe heat and friction during the re-entry phase following a 13-day space rendezvous.

The metallic parachute ejected 10 km above the earth slowing down re-entry vehicle and it landed with a big thud on the ground at a designated spot.

After the touchdown of the Shenzhou-9, it took about an hour for the astronauts to emerge out from their modest re-entry capsule.

Jing Haipeng, commander of the Shenzhou-9 crew, was the first to come out, followed by 33-year-old Liu Wang and the country's first woman astronaut Liu Yang.

There were big cheers all around as a smiling Liu, an airforce pilot, emerged out of the tiny opening.

The three, who were carried on chairs, greeted the official media and later flown to Beijing for medical checks.

The re-entry phase which took place in less than five minutes was telecast live to highlight the "crowning" achievement of the decade-long stint of the present leadership of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) headed by President Hu Jintao and Wen who would be retiring later this year to pave the way for the next generation.

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