BEIJING (Reuters) - An unmanned Chinese spacecraft returned to Earth successfully on Thursday after more than two weeks in orbit, marking a pivotal moment for the rising power's plans to secure a long-term manned foothold in space.
The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft touched down in northern China's Inner Mongolia region after a fiery return to Earth, a live broadcast on Chinese television showed. [See the month's best political cartoons.]
The spacecraft's return is the latest show of China's growing prowess in space, alongside its growing military and diplomatic influence, at a time when budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
The spacecraft was part of China's first docking exercise on November 3, when it joined the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module about 210 miles above Earth.
The unmanned Tiangong module, which is 35 feet long, launched on September 29, is part of China's exploratory preparations for a space lab. [Politicians 'Insulted' by Foreign Aid to China.]
China aims to have a fully fledged space station by about 2020.
However, it is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the United States and Russia.
Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the 400-tonne International Space Station, to which China does not belong.
But the United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.
China launched its first manned space mission in 2003 when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited Earth 14 times. It launched its second moon orbiter last year after becoming only the third country to send its astronauts walking in space outside their orbiting craft, in 2008.
China also plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover in 2012. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020.