China spacecraft returns to Earth
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China's third unmanned spacecraft has returned to Earth successfully after spending a week in orbit, state media reported.
The returning module of the Shenzhou III space vessel touched down about 4:51 p.m. Beijing time (0851 GMT) Monday in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Xinhua news agency reported.
China launched the space vessel into orbit last Monday in a test flight designed to pave the way for the country's first human space flight, state media has reported.
The Shenzhou III, which was described in the Chinese media as being "technically suitable for astronauts", was launched after months of delays.
The spaceship contained a set of metabolic simulation apparatus, human physical monitoring sensors and dummy astronauts, Xinhua reported.
The craft also contained biological, astronomical and engineering materials experiments.
The module will be transported to Beijing in the next few days where scientists will begin analyzing the experimental samples and instruments.
Shenzhou III was the third such experimental craft launched from the Jiaquan Satellite Launching Center in Gansu province in recent years.
"The successful launches of three Shenzhou spaceships takes the country to new heights of space science and technology," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese President Jiang Zemin as saying after watching the launch.
The space program, he added, showed the Chinese people's spirit of constantly striving to become stronger.
The spacecraft was carried atop a "Long March II F" booster rocket, designed specially for China's manned space program.
The Long March series has been widely used in China's successful commercial satellite launch business.
Some 10 minutes after last week's launc,h the spacecraft entered orbit, where remained for several days circling the Earth every 90 minutes.
Its flight was monitored and controlled from several ground stations, including the Beijing Aerospace Direction and Control Center in the Chinese capital, Xian Satellite Monitoring Center, and a fleet of four monitoring vessels deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
After the spaceship orbited its 108th pass around the Earth, the surveying vessel, "Yuanwang III" which was anchoring in the Atlantic Ocean in the South Hemisphere, ordered the spaceship's returning module to come back, Xinhua news agency reported.
The returning module headed to the preset landing zone, while the orbital module wouild continue to orbit the Earth, Xinhua added.
China sent its first Shenzhou, which loosely translated means 'Vessel of the Gods', into orbit in 1999.
The secretive Chinese space agency announced details about the flight only after the capsule landed 21 hours later.
In 2001, the center launched Shenzhou II into orbit with several small animals including a monkey, dog and rabbit as passengers on board.
The menagerie returned unharmed one week later, according to Chinese media reports.
China hopes the Shenzhou program will help it join in an elite technological club. Only the United States and Russia have sent humans into orbit.
China hopes to perform the feat within the decade although no fixed date has yet been set. Officials say ensuring the safety of future astronauts is the number one priority.
A group of astronauts -- or Taikonauts as they have been dubbed from the Chinese word for outer space -- have been trained for the program.
China's leaders says the country's space achievements will spur economic development, scientific advancement and the modernization of national defense.
Last year, Asian media reports suggested that China would send its own explorers into space before the end of 2002.
But a top Chinese space expert told the People's Daily Online that the timetable was too ambitious and additional unmanned tests would be required before the first manned flight.
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