Discovery's last moment in the Sun

By Phil Plait | March 8, 2011 11:33 am

Alan Friedman’s shot of the solar prominence was not the only amazing picture he took of the Sun last week. He also caught something pretty special: the Orbiter Discovery, docked with the International Space Station, as the pair crossed the face of our star:

Amazing. He had to rush from giving a talk, drive to the location, set up, and be ready to snap this event… which lasted only a fifth of a second! As it was he barely made it; had he missed his location by a few hundred meters the docked spacecraft would’ve been off to the side of the Sun. He took this picture on March 1, 2011, a week after launch, midway through Discovery’s final mission.

The Orbiter is on the bottom of the ISS as seen here; I drew a line pointing to it in this zoomed shot (the configuration is clearer in this picture from last year of the ISS and Atlantis transiting the Sun by the always-amazing Thierry Legault). To give you an idea of the scale, the ISS is about 100 meters long, about the length of an American football field from goal post to goal post, and orbits the Earth at a height of 350 km (210 miles). The Sun is 1.4 million km (860,000 miles) across and 150 million km (93 million miles) away.

What does that all mean? Well, see that sunspot cluster on the left? It looks to be about the same apparent size as the ISS… but it actually spans a region as big as Jupiter!

This is the final flight for the Orbiter. Discovery is scheduled to land in Florida tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9, 2011, just before noon local time. That means that Alan’s picture shows, almost literally, Discovery’s last moments in the Sun.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Pretty pictures

Comments (24)

  1. Robert S-R

    I’m still awed by the thought that people put that there.

  2. Levi in NY

    It’s about the length of a *real* football field from one goal to the other, too. 😉

  3. CharonPDX

    As Levi says, you could just say “about the length of a football field” and it would apply to both meanings fairly equally.

  4. Fantastic. And yes, it IS amazing that people put that, there. Oh the things we can accomplish when we stop fighting and work together…

  5. Emery Emery

    We are nothing more than fancy ants! fanciants!

  6. Fantastic shot. Timing is everything. Each of the final crew should get a copy of this. :)

  7. tonyh

    its a bit sad really but so amazing

  8. Erik

    I think it’s even more amazing that people put *people* there, inside that thing that people put there.

    I envy them daily.

  9. Ross

    Amazing shot , photographic history.

  10. Phil, Ohio

    That is NOT Discovery!
    That IS the ISS!

  11. Joseph

    @ Phil, Ohio: o,0 did you not read the article? It is the ISS with Discovery attached to it.

    And it is awesome, and it is sad, and it is just a bump along the way.

  12. Joseph G

    Too bad it’d take far too much delta-V to drop the Orbiter onto Sol (leaving the astronauts on the ISS first, of course). It’d be like a Viking funeral! A more fitting sendoff then any other, I think.
    Then we could literally see Discovery’s last moment in the sun :)

    I just made myself sad.

  13. Caleb

    @ Phil; yes, it is the ISS, with Discovery docked.

  14. Crudely Wrott

    Hail! Discovery!
    She’s the latest in a line of vessels so christened and has proved more than worthy of the name. Her crews have been good sailors, all.
    In light of her accomplishments I can only wonder about the form, the mission and the crew of some future ship so ambitiously named.

  15. And yet we still can’t put people on the moon!


  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great photo indeed. :-)

    Bittersweet feeling tho’.

    @13. Joseph G :

    Too bad it’d take far too much delta-V to drop the Orbiter onto Sol (leaving the astronauts on the ISS first, of course). It’d be like a Viking funeral! A more fitting sendoff then any other, I think. Then we could literally see Discovery’s last moment in the sun
    I just made myself sad.

    Reminds me of this :

    My Discovery version – “Old Irontiles?” – with apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes :

    Ay, tear her tattered tiles down!
    Long has she flown so high,
    And many an eye has danced to see
    Shuttle Discovery in the sky;
    Beneath her swung the Earth about,
    And white flame of the rockets roar;–
    The meteor of the ocean air
    Shall sweep the clouds no more.

    Oh, better that her sky-burned hulk
    Should plunge beneath the Sun;
    Her thunders shook the might of space,
    And there should be her grave.

    Farewell Discovery have a safe and smooth landing – and thankyou.

  17. Jon

    At 7:28pm (local (California)) time, I was sitting out in my back yard watching, and they flew over, one after the other. A couple of bright stars, ascending to fifty-one degrees*, then fading out as they fell into the Earth’s shadow. It felt oddly metaphorical, that…

    It seemed to me the brighter one went first, and would thus be the ISS, but I’m not sure. Is anyone here sure?

    It was a bit too long after separation to see them in tandem.


    * I know that number because the star-spotting website told me. I didn’t measure it. But it seemed about right. J.

  18. This may not be Discovery’s last moment in the sun!

    … depending on whether or not the Sun consumes the earth when it becomes a red giant in a few billion years hehe

  19. Joseph G

    @ MTU: I love it! 😀

    A more practical option would be removing her lower tiles and sending her in on an automated reentry – that way folks on the ground could watch – but I’d think that’d bring up unpleasant memories of the Columbia.

  20. Jan Doggen

    Amazing pic.
    The person naming these picture files (ISS_030111.jpg) should read the article I just read 2 minutes earlier:

  21. John

    Love the last photos of Discovery and the Station! Truly this is History passing.

  22. Sternlieber

    Awesome ! Wish I could meet this remarkable guy !
    Btw I sent you some photos that some friends and I had taken of a similar event to your gmail id. Did you receive it ?

  23. RCLeVaugh

    It’s a sad day that we end a program with no follow on to take it’s place. We should keep “FLYING.” Why should we be surprised? Look at all the other great ideas the goverment has placed upon us. May you have fair winds and a following sea. Fairwell DISCOVERY


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