A Chinese Palace Crosses the Sun

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Jun 24, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

I sometimes refer to the International Space Station as just “the space station”—and usually, in context, that’s OK. But not too many people are aware that there is another space station: Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace 1”), a testbed spacecraft launched by the Chinese into low-Earth orbit in 2011.

One person who knows about it is the master astrophotographer Thierry Legault, who never ceases to amaze me with his uncanny ability to capture incredible pictures of the sky. The other day he sent me a note; on June 16, in southern France, he caught Tiangong-1 crossing the Sun!

In this picture, you can see the station silhouetted against the Sun’s face; it’s the H-shaped object between the sunspots. Right now, the Shenzou-10 spacecraft is docked to Tiangong-1; each is one half of the H.

Perspective is funny; the two spacecraft together are about 20 meters across but don’t look much smaller than the sunspots … which are as large as our entire planet! But, of course, they’re a wee bit farther away. Like, 500,000 times farther.

But Legault wasn’t done. The next day he went out again and got video of the pair crossing the Sun’s face:

The entire transit took less than half a second! He got 17 different frames with the station in it, which I’ve marked with arrows. He used a hydrogen-alpha filter, which accentuates the flow of hot plasma on the Sun’s surface writhing under the intense magnetic fields, adding substantial drama to the shot.

The Shenzou-10 mission should be ending in a few days, and the three astronauts on board will return to Earth. It is the last planned mission to Tiangong-1; it was designed to test out various technologies and lay the path for a series of larger and more ambitious space stations, the first of which if planned to launch in 2020. Tiangong-1 will eventually be deorbited (dropped into the Pacific Ocean) since it will no longer be needed.

Of course, I can’t help but note that the Chinese are taking space exploration very seriously, taking methodical steps and working to do what needs to be done. I hope that Congress and the White House will take it just as seriously. I don’t want another space race—those are wasteful and have long-term deleterious effects, in my opinion—but what I do want is an eye to the skies and everyone to understand that exploring space is not just something we want to do, but that we must do.

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