China Reveals First Images of Fully Assembled Tiangong Space Station

Image credit: CMSE

The images showcased here mark a historic milestone, providing an unprecedented glimpse into the complete structure of China’s Tiangong Space Station. Captured by the Shenzhou 16 mission crew during their return to Earth, these high-definition visuals are the first comprehensive images of the space station since its deployment into orbit.

As the Shenzhou 16 team handed control to Shenzhou 17 on October 26, Commander Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu, and Gui Haichao embarked on their return journey on October 30, bringing back mesmerizing views of the orbiting laboratory. Positioned between 217 to 280 miles above Earth, the Tiangong’s initial unit, Tianhe, entered low-Earth orbit in 2021. Notably, Shenzhou 12’s 90-day stay marked a significant extension compared to previous taikonaut missions.

The subsequent launch of units Wentian and Mengtian in 2022 and 2023, respectively, completed the 180-foot, 77-ton space station—roughly 20% the size of the International Space Station. Functioning as a “Heavenly Palace,” the Tiangong has hosted rotating crews conducting essential science experiments, a commitment the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) plans to uphold for a decade.

During the Shenzhou 16 mission, the fifth team aboard the space station, scientific exploration reached new heights with activities such as spacewalks, vegetable cultivation, and live lectures showcasing microgravity phenomena, including match lighting. While the current images capture Tiangong’s glory, the CMSA has ambitious plans. At the 47th International Astronautical Congress on October 4, the agency unveiled intentions to expand the station with three additional modules, bringing the total to six.

In a significant move, the CMSA plans to accompany Tiangong with the “Xuntian,” a Hubble-class space telescope. Orbiting Earth alongside the space station, Xuntian will facilitate rendezvous for repairs, refueling, and upgrades. This initiative underscores China’s commitment to advancing its presence and capabilities in space exploration.

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