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

On July 30, 2021, Shenzhou 12 astronaut Tang Hongbo photographed the spectacular scenery of thousands of lights on the North African continent.
On July 30, 2021, Shenzhou 12 astronaut Tang Hongbo photographed the spectacular scenery of thousands of lights on the North African continent. (Image credit: Tang Hangbo/China Manned Space Engineering Office)

China's Shenzhou 12 astronauts have sent back stunning images taken out of small windows of the Tianhe space station module in low Earth orbit.

The three astronauts, the first crewmembers to visit Tianhe, have been aboard the module since June 17. The crew have completed two extravehicular activities (EVAs), or spacewalks, and carried out a range of experiments, but China's human spaceflight agency has only recently released images taken by the astronauts.

A first batch of images taken by Tang Hongbo and released in August include views from space of the Gulf of Guinea, lights illuminating north Africa, the Ethiopian Highlands and Indian Ocean, as well as Tang's sleeping quarters. Shenzhou 12 commander Nie Haisheng also sent back images of Beijing at night and a section of the Pacific Ocean. 

Related: The latest news about China's space program

Shenzhou 12 astronaut Tang Hongbo photographed his sleeping quarters on Aug. 18, 2021. (Image credit: Tang Hangbo/China Manned Space Engineering Office)

One image shows a curve of light above the Earth. This is created by light passing through sodium atoms in the atmosphere at around 50 miles to 65 miles (80 to 105 kilometers) above Earth's surface. 

Other images provide a first glimpse at the windows on Tianhe, as well as a look at the solar panels that provide electrical power for the orbital facility. The photo of Tang's sleeping quarters shows the sleeping bags that keep the astronauts secure in microgravity while they doze. 

A second batch of images released on Sept. 8 include pics snapped by astronaut Liu Boming. These include Lake Urmia in Iran, China's Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture, Lake Van in Turkey and the Armenian highlands, and a view of South Africa.

A portion of South Africa, photographed by Shenzhou 12 astronaut Tang Hango in late August 2021. (Image credit: Tang Hangbo/China Manned Space Engineering Office)

Reports did not specify the equipment used by the astronauts to capture the images. 

The Shenzhou 12 astronauts are preparing for a return to Earth sometime in mid-September. The crew will engage in adaptive physical exercises, clean EVA suits and carry out a spacecraft radial rendezvous test before returning home, according to CGTN.

The radial, or R-bar, rendezvous will see the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft approach Tianhe from a direction perpendicular to the Earth, instead of along the line of Tianhe's flight path. Shenzhou 12 will also circumnavigate Tianhe as a further test in preparation for October's Shenzhou 13 crewed mission.

The Peruvian coast, photographed by Shenzhou 12 astronaut Tang Hango (Image credit: Tang Hangbo/China Manned Space Engineering Office)

Shenzhou 12 is the third of 11 planned missions to construct the three-module Tiangong space station. 

A Long March 7 rocket is currently being prepared to launch the fourth mission, the Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft, in mid- to late September. Shenzhou 13, which has been readied in case of emergency, is scheduled to launch from Jiuquan to Tianhe in October with a second three-person crew.

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Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.