China's Shenzhou 11 manned space capsule returns to Earth

November 18, 2016 1:27 AM EST

Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft carrying astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong blasts off from the launchpad in Jiuquan, China, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer


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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Shenzhou 11 space capsule landed safely in the northern region of Inner Mongolia on Friday with two astronauts aboard, state media said, completing the country's longest manned space mission to date.

China Central Television showed images of the craft - whose name translates as "Divine Vessel" - on the ground flanked by Chinese flags and support teams. State news agency Xinhua said the capsule had touched down "successfully" just after 2 p.m.

The two astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, spent 30 days aboard the Tiangong 2 space laboratory, or "Heavenly Palace 2", which China is using to carry out experiments ahead of a longer-range plan to have a permanent manned space station around 2022.

They did not immediately emerge from the capsule as CCTV said they were undergoing medical examination, but mission commander Zhang Youxia, who is also a senior military official, said in a televised speech that they were in "good condition".

"The Tiangong 2 and Shenzhou 11 flight duties were a complete success," Zhang said.

Tiangong 2 will remain in its orbit and next docks with Tianzhou 1, China's first cargo spacecraft, which is set to be launched in April next year, according to state media.

In a manned space mission in 2013, three Chinese astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with a space laboratory, the Tiangong 1.

Advancing China's space program is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

The U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations using space-based assets in a crisis.

China has been working to develop its space program for military, commercial and scientific purposes, but is still playing catch-up to established space powers the United States and Russia. It insists the program is for peaceful purposes.

China's Jade Rabbit moon rover landed on the moon in late 2013 to great national fanfare, but soon suffered severe technical difficulties.

The rover and the Chang'e 3 probe that carried it there were the first "soft landing" on the moon since 1976. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had accomplished the feat earlier.

China will launch a "core module" for its first space station some time around 2018, a senior official said in April, part of a plan for a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)



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