Chinese spacecraft due back early

CHINA'S Shenzhou VI spacecraft, its second to take astronauts into orbit, is expected to land back on earth tomorrow morning and the country has geared up for its return with a gush of patriotic fanfare.

State television will run live coverage of the primary landing site on the remote steppes of the northern Inner Mongolia region as of 4am local time (4am AEST tomorrow).

The two astronauts onboard will have completed 76 orbits of the earth and travelled millions of kilometres since Wednesday morning's launch of the mission, which state media has hailed as a breakthrough demonstrating China's emergence as a technological power.

"We're proud of Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, and we're even prouder of the motherland's constantly advancing aerospace program," Xinhua news agency said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke to the astronauts by telephone over the weekend, just days after presiding over a meeting of top Communist Party leadership that spelt out the country's plans to develop its technological prowess.

"In times past, we couldn't manufacture even a car or ship," Xinhua said.

"Today, an independent, self-sufficient, constantly strengthening China has, like a miracle, become one of a handful of countries able to make the dream of spaceflight a reality."

China has pulled together its increasingly ambitious space program on a relative shoestring.

Xinhua quoted a Chinese academic as saying the price for the development of the entire Shenzhou program was about $US2.3 billion ($3 billion), a fraction of NASA's $US16 billion ($21 billion) budget for this year alone.

But state media have mainly focused on the economic benefits the space program should reap for China's 1.3 billion people.

"Successful flights like Shenzhou VI build cohesiveness and reassure the people about their nation's social and economic potential," said Anthony Curtis, a professor at the University of North Caroline at Pembroke.

Colonel Yang Liwei became the first Chinese man in space when he orbited the earth 14 times aboard the Shenzhou V in October 2003.

The country has also used its increasingly reliable Long March rockets to put more than 50 satellites into orbit, including a few for foreign international clients.

"China's repeated successful launches of manned spacecraft will be extremely likely to help China achieve a fresh breakthrough in the world commercial aerospace market," the China Business newspaper said.

Its next manned mission, slated to include a spacewalk, will take off in 2007, followed by the establishment of an orbiting space station, which Curtis said would be feasible within the next five years, The Australian reported.

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