China's Shenzhou 11 space capsule returns to Earth with two astronauts on board

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (left) and Chen Dong wave at a news conference before China launches the Shenzhou 11 manned spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China, on Oct 16, 2016.
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (left) and Chen Dong wave at a news conference before China launches the Shenzhou 11 manned spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China, on Oct 16, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's Shenzhou 11 space capsule landed safely in the northern region of Inner Mongolia on Friday (Nov 18) with two astronauts aboard, state media said, completing the country's longest manned space mission to date.

China Central Television (CCTV) 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 2pm.

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 space mission chief commander Zhang Youxia said in a televised speech that they were in good condition.

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 programme is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

China insists its space programme is for peaceful purposes.

The US Defence 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 programme for military, commercial and scientific purposes, but is still playing catch-up to established space powers the United States and Russia.