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First lady taikonaut and pals plunge into the dirt after space mating

Smack down after withdrawing from Heavenly Palace

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The three taikonauts aboard Shenzhou-9 have returned safely to Earth, touching down in northern China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region as planned.

Chang Wanquan, chief commander of China's manned space programme, said that the space docking mission had been a complete success and that all three of the astronauts were in good condition, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Mission commander Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and the country's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, landed in Mongolia this morning and were then flown to Beijing following medical examinations at the landing site.

"We have returned and we feel good," the 'nauts told command centre from the capsule.

Chinese bigwigs including Premier Wen Jiabao watched the return from the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Centre. The Premier also delivered a congratulatory note from the central authorities.

The Shenzhou-9 mission was a big step in China's ambitions to get its own space station up by 2020. As well as automatically docking with the Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, when they arrived, the crew also reversed and completed a manual berthing during the 13-day mission.

As space stations are assembled in space, being able to fly bits up and stick them together in orbit is key to their successful construction. And astronauts need to be able to do that manually as well as automatically in case the computer system lets them down. ®

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