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UPDATE 1-Boeing's Starliner astronaut capsule scores 'bull's-eye' landing in New Mexico

Joey Roulette

New Mexico@ (Updates throughout with landing)

WASHINGTON, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Boeing Co's Starliner astronaut spacecraft landed in the New Mexico desert on Sunday, the company said, after faulty software forced officials to cut short an unmanned mission aimed at taking it to the International Space Station.

The 7:58 a.m. ET (1258 GMT) landing in New Mexico's White Sands desert capped a turbulent 48 hours for Boeing's botched milestone test of an astronaut capsule that is designed to help NASA regain its human spaceflight capabilities.

"We hit the bull's-eye," a Boeing spokesman said on a livestream of the landing.

The landing will yield the mission's most valuable test data after failing to meet its core objective of docking to the space station.

Starliner's three main parachutes deployed just over one mile (1,600 metres) from the Earth's surface after enduring intense heat from the violent reentry through the atmosphere, plummeting at 25 times the speed of sound.

The CST-100 Starliner capsule was successfully launched from Florida on Friday, but an automated timer error prevented the spacecraft from attaining the correct orbit for it to meet and dock with the space station.

Boeing and NASA officials said they still do not understand why software caused the craft to miss the orbit required.

The Starliner's debut launch to orbit was a milestone test for Boeing. The company is vying with SpaceX, the privately held rocket company of billionaire high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, to revive NASA's human spaceflight capabilities. SpaceX carried out a successful unmanned flight of its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station in March.

The Starliner setback came as Boeing sought an engineering and public relations victory in a year punctuated by a corporate crisis over the grounding of its 737 MAX jetliner following two fatal crashes of the aircraft. The company's shares dropped 1.6% on Friday.

Sunday's landing marked the first time a U.S. orbital space capsule designed for humans landed on land.

All past U.S. capsules, including SpaceX's Crew Dragon, splashed down in the ocean. Russia's Soyuz capsules and China's past crew capsules made land landings.

The now-retired Space Shuttle glided in like a plane.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando, Florida Writing by Brad Brooks Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Frances Kerry)