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Chinese spacecraft set to return to Earth on Friday

BEIJING--A Chinese spacecraft with three astronauts aboard will return to Earth Friday after a nearly two-week mission that included the country's first manual docking in orbit, state media said.

The Shenzhou-9 will return to Earth around 10:00 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Friday, the state Xinhua news agency said Thursday, quoting an unnamed space program official.

China launched the spacecraft carrying three crewmembers, including the country's first female astronaut, from the remote Gobi desert in the nation's northwest on June 16.

The Shenzhou-9 manually linked with the Tiangong-1 space module in orbit on Sunday, the key goal of the mission and a milestone in an ambitious program to build a space station by the end of the decade.

China's rulers see the space program as a symbol of the country's rising global stature, growing technical expertise and the Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.

The spacecraft had docked automatically early in its mission, but mastering manual docking is necessary as a back up to reduce risk.

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