China has released a set of images that show the entirety of its new Tiangong space station for the first time.
Released this week by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the photos were taken by the Shenzhou 16 crew from a few hundred meters above the structure as they left the station to return to Earth late last month.
The images show the core Tianhe module in the center and two laboratory modules, Mengtian and Wentian, on either side of it. Also visible are the Shenzhou 17 spacecraft and Tianzhou 6 cargo ships that are currently docked with the core module.
Countless dark rectangles are solar arrays that help power the 90-ton Tiangong, which translates as “Heavenly Palace.” The structure is very similar to the International Space Station (ISS), although the latter is much larger and heavier.
However, this may change, as according to the South China Morning Post, China is planning to expand Tiangong from a three-module, T-shaped facility to a six-module, cross-shaped facility.
The first module of the Tiangong station was sent into space in April 2021 and since then China has conducted several additional launches to gradually build it up. It orbits about 230 miles above Earth, slightly lower than the ISS, which sits about 250 miles above our planet.
And like the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS, the Chinese taikonauts living at the Tiangong facility spend much of their time conducting scientific research in the unique microgravity conditions.
Tiangong is part of China’s broader space ambitions, which include plans to land astronauts on the Moon before 2030. It has already successfully deployed a rover on Mars and brought back a sample of lunar soil from our nearest neighbour.
NASA and its partners plan to shut down the aging ISS in 2031, and if there is not a privately funded replacement in orbit before then, the Chinese facility will become the only permanently crewed station in space.