After the trio had been given medical examinations inside the capsule, Zhai, 42, said that he was "proud of his motherland".

The three had stayed inside the module for nearly an hour as they re-adjusted to the Earth's gravity.

Premier Wen Jaibao was among the country's leaders who applauded the successful mission.

Planned moon landing

Wen said to mission control that the three astronauts were "heroes" and China's exploration programme had been peaceful in its intent.

He said: "The complete success of the manned Shenzhou 7 is a great stride forward for China's space technology."

China's third manned space mission makes it the third nation to complete a spacewalk, along with Russia and the US.

While in orbit the astronauts completed experiments and Zhai undertook a 20-minute spacewalk in a $4.5 million spacesuit.

Scientists consider experience in spacewalking as being important to develop the capacity to construct a space lab and space station and eventually to land on the moon.