Updated: 02/07/12 : 07:14:38
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World :: Chinese Shenzhou 9 Astronauts Complete Mission

China's first female astronaut and two other crew members have received a hero's welcome after successfully completing a landmark mission for China's ambitious space programme.

The trio emerged smiling from a capsule that returned safely to Earth after a 13-day mission to the orbiting Tiangong 1 module - a prototype for a future space station.

Their Shenzhou 9 capsule, charred black from re-entry, parachuted to a landing on the grasslands of the country's sprawling Inner Mongolia region at about 10am (0200 Irish Time).

About an hour later, mission commander and veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng, 45, emerged, followed by crew mates Liu Wang, 43, and 33-year-old Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut.

The three, all experienced air force pilots, were lifted on to folding chairs and appeared in good health. They smiled, waved, chatted and saluted as state television ran live footage from the landing site.

"Tiangong 1, our home in space, was comfortable and pleasant. We're very proud of our nation," Liu Yang told national broadcaster CCTV.

Space programme commander, General Chang Wanchuan, declared the astronauts in good health and the mission "completely successful".

He was followed by Premier Wen Jiabao, who said the mission marked "absolutely important progress" for the space programme.

The mission had included both remote control and piloted dockings with the module and extensive medical monitoring of the astronauts as part of preparations for manning a permanent space station.

China's next goals include another manned mission to the module originally scheduled for later this year, but which may be delayed depending on an evaluation of the Shenzhou 9 mission and the condition of the Tiangong 1.

Tiangong 1 is due to be retired in a few years and replaced with a permanent space station around 2020 that will weigh about 60 tons, slightly smaller than NASA's Skylab of the 1970s and about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station that China was barred from participating in, largely due to objections from the US.

Possible future missions could include sending a rover to the Moon, possibly followed by a manned lunar mission.

Shenzhou 9 is the latest success for China's manned space programme that launched its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003, making China just the third nation after Russia and the US to achieve that feat.

China would also be the third country after the United States and Russia to send independently maintained space stations into orbit.

The space programme is a huge source of national pride in China and a key symbol of the country's emerging status as a world power as both the US and Russia cut back on ambitious space exploration.

During the Shenzhou 9 mission China revealed it has spent 20 billion yuan (2.5bn) on its space programme between 1992 and 2005 - a rare admission for a programme with close links to the secretive military.

By the time the next Shenzhou mission is completed, Beijing will have spent an additional 19 billion yuan (about 2.3bn), the spokeswoman said.