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Chinese spacecraft captured by Earthbound photographers

Skywatchers on the ground have spotted the Chinese Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, which has docked with the Tiangong 1 module, as it hurtled through the night sky.  

By Clara MoskowitzSPACE.com / June 25, 2012

Skywatcher Stephen Mudge captured this photo of the Chinese Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 9 spacecraft docked together over Brisbane, Australia last week.

Stephen Mudge

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Last week, Chinese astronauts docked two spacecraft together in orbit for the first, and now skywatchers on the ground have captured the scene.

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Chinese spaceflyers Liu Yang, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang launched June 16 on the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft. Two days later, on June 18, the astronauts (known as taikonauts), docked their vehicle at the robotic Tiangong 1 module, which had been in orbit since last autumn.

The two craft have been orbiting Earth together since, with the astronauts — including China's first female spaceflyer — living and working onboard. From the ground, the docked Chinese vehicles look much like many other satellites, appearing as a swift-moving pinpoint of light passing across the sky.

Astrophotographer Stephen Mudge photographed Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong 1 moving roughly 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Brisbane, Australia on June 20. His long-exposure photo shows the docked spacecraft as a bright streak across the otherwise static sky seen in the early morning hours. [How to See China's Shenzhou 6 in Night Sky]

Mudge had shot one of the Chinese spacecraft before. On March 31, before the Shenzhou 9 mission launched, the skywatcher caught a view of Tiangong 1 crossing overhead just five minutes apart from a pass of the International Space Station (ISS).

"The ISS went over first, followed five minutes later by China's Tiangong 1 station only a few degrees away from where the ISS had been," Mudge wrote in an email to SPACE.com.

The International Space Station is the $100 billion product of a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. Tiangong 1 is much smaller, but it is the prototype module for China's goal of establishing a space station of its own by 2020.

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