China's Shenzhou 6 spacecraft and its two-astronaut crew prepared Sunday for their return to Earth after a five-day spaceflight, though Chinese space officials said the exact landing site will be decided hours before the planned touchdown.
Shenzhou 6 astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng will land in the early hours of Oct. 17 Beijing Time in either the Siziwang Banner region of Inner Mongolia in north China, the mission's primary landing are, or at a backup site in the northwestern Jiuquan region, state media reported, adding that weather forecasts predict favorably landing conditions through Oct. 18.
"Decision will be made six hours before the spacecraft's return whether the re-entry capsule will land at the primary landing site in Inner Mongolia or this northwestern standby site," Zhu Yabin, chief of the land search and rescue team, told China's official Xinhua News Agency.
Six helicopters, 14 special vehicles and more than 200 recovery workers have been mobilized for Shenzhou 6's return at its primary landing site, according to Sui Qisheng, chief commander in charge of landing, Xinhua reported.
"We have drawn out detailed plans to ensure that rescue workers and equipment will arrive at where the capsule lands," Sui told Xinhua.
Fei and Nie have orbited the Earth since launching spaceward atop a Long March 2F rocket on Oct. 12 Beijing Time (Oct. 11 GMT). Their mission marks China's second manned spaceflight since the launch of astronaut Yang Liwei aboard Shenzhou 5 in 2003, as well as the country's first two-astronaut mission. China is the third country to independently launch astronauts into Earth orbit after Russia and the U.S. Its Shenzhou - or "Divine Vessel" - series spacecraft borrow a basic design from Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, but are heavily modified and modernized.
The Shenzhou 6 crew have flown nearly 1.8 million miles (2.8 million kilometers) and orbited the Earth more than 71 times during their spaceflight, China's state media reported.
Fei and Nie have performed a series of physical experiments to test the integrity of their spacecraft, as well as cytology, earth observation and human physiology tests, Xinhua said.
The two astronauts - also known as "taikonauts" - said Sunday that they appreciated the support of their country, state media reported.
"We're grateful for the deep love and concern by all Chinese people, the Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan compatriots," Nie said in a space-to-ground transmission, according to Xinhua.
Fei reportedly added that he and Nie were "feeling good" and "happy" in Earth orbit and planned to "do our utmost to fulfill the mission," the news agency added.
The Shenzhou 6 spaceflight is designed to further China's human spaceflight experience as it works toward developing a manned space station and serve as a symbol of national pride while demonstrating the country's technological prowess.
State media reports also cited China's plans to select female astronauts for future missions.
China's Air Force Aeronautics University accepted its eighth group of female pilot trainees in July, and may prove the source of the country's first female fighter pilots and first female astronaut, Xinhua said Saturday, adding that some students are hopeful they'll make the cut.
"My dream is to become China's first female fighter pilot and first female taikonaut," Tao Jiali, a student from southwest China's Sichuan Province to the university, told Xinhua Saturday.
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