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03 March, 2024
 
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Astronauts capture striking views of Tiangong space station before earth return

From Shenzhou 12's record 90-day stay to CMSA's ambitious expansion plans

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In a historic moment, China's Shenzhou 16 mission bid farewell to the Tiangong Space Station, offering a unique glimpse of the entire structure through high-definition imagery. The departure marked the first comprehensive imaging of Tiangong since its orbital arrival.

As reported by Space.com, Ahead of their return to Earth, the Shenzhou 16 team handed over control to the incoming Shenzhou 17 crew on October 26. The three taikonauts - Commander Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu, and Gui Haichao - departed Tiangong on October 30, arriving safely later the same day.

En route home, the crew turned their cameras towards the space station, capturing breathtaking views of the orbital laboratory situated 217 to 280 miles above Earth.

Tiangong, meaning "Heavenly Palace," has seen continuous scientific exploration since its first unit, Tianhe, entered low-Earth orbit in 2021. Shenzhou 12's 90-day stay in June 2021 marked a significant milestone, being three times longer than any previous taikonaut mission.

The completion of the 180-foot-long station with the launch of Wentian and Mengtian units in 2022 and 2023, respectively, solidified Tiangong's status as a 77-ton, 20% smaller counterpart to the International Space Station.

Shenzhou 16's crew, the fifth team to inhabit Tiangong, continued the station's scientific endeavors with a spacewalk, vegetable cultivation, and a live lecture from space, showcasing activities in microgravity.

While the captivating images depict Tiangong's current state, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) has ambitious plans. At the 47th International Astronautical Congress on October 4 in Baku, CMSA unveiled intentions to expand the space station with three additional modules, bringing the total count to six.

Furthermore, CMSA aims to accompany Tiangong with a Hubble-class space telescope named "Xuntian," designed to orbit Earth alongside the station, facilitating repairs, refueling, and upgrades. The future holds exciting developments for China's Heavenly Palace in the realm of space exploration.

[With information sourced from Space.com]

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