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China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft returns to Earth after historic space mission

Images of the capsule streaking through the sky over Inner Mongolia were broadcast live on state TV.

mongolia shenzhou-9 6 29 2012Enlarge
A shop owner watches television in his store in Shanghai as China's first female astronaut Liu Yang is shown getting out of the return capsule of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft after returning to earth on June 29, 2012. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft has returned to Earth, with images of the capsule landing in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, shown live on state TV.

According to Space.com, the capsule could be seen "streaking through the atmosphere like a meteor, deploying its main parachute" before landing shortly after 10 a.m. local time.

The historic 13-day mission — with its three-person crew including the nation's first female astronaut, Liu Yang — made China the third nation ever to successfully dock a manned spacecraft to another in orbit.

The test was critical to Beijing's goal of building a space station by 2020. It has also previously announced ambitious plans for space travel, involving more powerful carrier rockets and space freighters

However, according to Reuters, China is still a long way from catching up to established space superpowers the US and Russia.

And besides, as China ramps up its manned space missions — this was its fourth since 2003 — the US has been winding back and will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017.

More from GlobalPost: China vs. US: the new Space Race? 

Russia, meanwhile, has said manned missions are no longer a priority.

However, China couldn't appear more excited by the Shenzhou-9 mission, with Chinese media following the entire flight in seeming minute detail — even quoting US experts on its importance.

"The docking is a technological milestone, and represents a significant advance in capability," the China Daily quoted David Mindell, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as saying: "It is a difficult task, and also a huge stepping stone toward future advances."

The Daily quoted Pamela Melory, a retired NASA astronaut, as saying: "It is an impressive achievement, and a very difficult thing to do," she said. "From those of us who are passionate about space, we wish them congratulations on their accomplishment. 

After the safe landing of the Shenzhou-9 capsule on Friday, mission commander Jing Haipeng told China's CCTV reporters: 

"We fulfilled the first manned manual docking. For the country and people all across the country, thank you for your concerns."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/china/120628/china-space-shenzhou-9-spacecraft-earth-inner-mongolia-mongolian