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Technology

China's Shenzhou 11 mission returns to earth

The Shenzhou 11 spacecraft has returned to earth bringing home two astronauts from Beijing's longest-ever orbital mission. The two taikonauts spent a month carrying out experiments aboard the Tiangong 2 space lab.

The two taikonauts returned Friday from a month-long stay aboard the country's space station, China's sixth and longest crewed mission and a sign of the growing ambitions as China pours billions into its space program. 

State broadcaster CCTV showed the return capsule's separation from the Tiangong 2 space lab 393 kilometers (244 miles) above the earth, and its descent through the atmosphere to its grassy landing in Mongolia. The channel did not show the men emerging, but said they had been taken by helicopter to the space center; the official Xinhua news agency reported that both Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong were in good health.

The mission's success "indicates that our manned space program has achieved major new progress and is the latest achievement in building a country of innovation and a world power of science and technology," the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee, the Cabinet and the party commission controlling the military said in a congratulatory message.

The Tiangong 2 space lab, launched in September, is running experiments on growing rice and thale cress in microgravity. China was excluded from the International Space Station mainly due to US legislation barring cooperation over concerns Beijing's space program is a conduit to developing ballistic missiles and other strategic weapons.

China launched its first lunar rover in late 2013 which - despite some technological setbacks - functioned until last month. So far China has largely replicated activities that the US and Soviet Union pioneered decades ago, and says it intends to set up its own manned space station by 2022, and eventually put one of its citizens on the surface of the moon.

The Shenzhou 11 mission had the pair spending 33 days aboard the 60-ton Tiangong 2, conducting experiments and testing equipment in preparation for the launching of the station's core module in 2018. A fully functioning, permanently crewed space station is on course to begin operations in six years. In a recent editorial, state newspaper China Daily congratulated the country on having "never given up on its resolve to catch up with the world's leaders in science and technology, as its leadership understands the importance of science and technology for a nation's development."

Advancing China's space program is a priority for President Xi Jinping  who has called for the world's most populous nation to establish itself as a power in space. This comes as the US Defense Department has warned that China was pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations using space-based assets in a crisis.

jar/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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