China released new pictures of its Tiangong space station Tuesday as Chinese astronauts and space officials made a public relations visit to Hong Kong. These images, taken about a month ago, show the Tiangong complex in its fully assembled configuration with three modules staffed by three crew members.
A departing crew of three astronauts captured the new panoramic views of the Tiangong station in low-Earth orbit October 30, shortly after departing the outpost to head for Earth at the end of a six-month mission. These are the first views showing the Tiangong station after China completed assembling its three main modules last year.
The Tianhe core module is at the center of the complex. It launched in April 2021 with crew accommodations and life support systems for astronauts. Two experiment modules, named Wentian and Mengtian, launched in 2022. The first team of Chinese astronauts arrived at the station in June 2021, and Tiangong has been permanently staffed by rotating three-person crews since June 2022.
One of these crews closed out their six-month stint on the Tiangong station October 30. Their Shenzhou 16 ferry ship backed away from Tiangong, then autonomously flew a circle around the outpost as the astronauts floated near windows on their spacecraft with cameras “to complete a panoramic image of the space station assembly with the Earth as the background,” the China Manned Space Agency said.
Tiangong’s power-generating solar arrays dominate the views captured by the Shenzhou 16 astronauts. These solar panels span more than half the length of a football field, end to end.
It turns out China may not be finished constructing the Tiangong station. In remarks last month, officials outlined plans to add three more pressurized compartments to expand China’s space station in the coming years.
Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace,” will become a hub for experiments, technology demonstrations, spacecraft assembly, and satellite servicing, said Zhang Qiao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). CAST is part of the web of state-owned contractors that build rockets and spacecraft for China’s space program.
“We will build a 180 (metric) tons, six-module assembly in the future,” Zhang said at the International Astronautical Congress last month.