Spacewalking Chinese astronauts add camera to Tiangong space station module

China's Shenzhou 13 astronauts ventured outside the orbiting Tianhe module on Sunday and installed a new panoramic camera for monitoring the space station.

Rookie astronaut Ye Guangfu opened the hatch of the Tianhe airlock on Dec. 26 at 5:44 a.m. EST (1044 GMT, 6:44 p.m. Beijing time) and reported feeling well shortly after exiting. He was soon joined by mission commander Zhai Zhigang, while crewmate Wang Yaping assisted operations from inside the module by controlling the large robotic arm of the Tiangong space station. Working in coordination, the trio installed a panoramic camera.

"The camera was raised by over 300 millimeters, and was further away from the bulkhead after the lift, so it can carry out better observation with less blocked views," Zhang Wei, a space station systems designer with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), told CCTV.

Related: China's Shenzhou 12 astronauts send back stunning images of Earth (photos)

Chinese astronaut Ye Guangfu emerges from the Tianhe hatch in a Feitian spacesuit on Dec. 26, 2021. (Image credit: CMSA/BACC)

"The camera is mainly used to observe the operations on the spacecraft surface, and also to observe the distance between solar arrays and the robotic arm in motion," Zhang noted. 

Ye and Zhai were both back inside six hours and 11 minutes after first opening the hatch. During the spacewalk, the pair also completed other equipment-related tasks.

"Thank you very much for your hard work. You have left us with very beautiful pictures. All members of the ground team and the astronauts center are proud of you," the ground support team told the astronauts.

China has now completed four extravehicular activities, or spacewalks, since launching the Tianhe module in April this year: two each during the Shenzhou 12 and Shenzhou 13 crewed missions.

The spacewalks have tested the function and performance of the Tianhe airlock, three "Feitian" extravehicular suits, the module's robotic arm and the daily coordination and support of astronauts' activities from Earth.

Shenzhou 13 launched in October and the three crewmembers are expected to complete their six-month mission in March 2022. After this, China will kick into high gear to complete the construction of its three-module space station.

"After Shenzhou 13 returns home, we will launch a [Tianzhou] cargo spacecraft, the Shenzhou 14 crewed spacecraft, a lab module named 'Wentian' and a lab module called 'Mengtian,'" Zhou Jianping, a chief designer of China's human spaceflight program, told CCTV on Monday. 

"They will finish transposition and dock with the core module, so as to form a combination featuring three modules, marking the completion of China's space station construction," Zhou said. "This will be a milestone in the development of our manned space program and China's space program, ushering in a new era of China's manned space program."

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.