China Shenzhou-9 spacecraft makes first manual docking

(L-R) Liu Wang, Jing Haipeng and China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, smiling after completing the exercise

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China has successfully completed its first ever manual docking of a spacecraft with another space module.

Astronauts on the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft docked with the Tiangong-1 lab module without relying on an automated system.

State television broadcast images of Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, smiling after completing the exercise.

The docking is seen as a key step in the building of a space station, which China hopes to finish by 2020.

A manual docking procedure would be used in the event of a failure with the automated system.

The Shenzhou-9 and the Tiangong-1 lab module, 24 June The Shenzhou-9 separates from the Tiangong-1 lab module (left), before the manual re-docking

It is regarded as a difficult manoeuvre, bringing gently together two orbiting vessels travelling at thousands of miles an hour.

Liu Wang took charge of the operation, while Liu Yang conducted aerospace experiments.

"The success of the manual docking mission represents a major breakthrough. It was a precise and perfect docking," said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme.

Manual docking was mastered by the USSR and US in the 1960s.

The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft was launched on 16 June.

It carried out a successful automatic docking when it reached the Tiangong-1 module on 18 June.

Every move of the mission has been watched with patriotic pride by China's state media, the BBC's John Sudworth in Shanghai reports.

Even the astronauts' first space meal - rice, pickled pork, barbecue sauce and tea - was reported, our correspondent says.

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