Stunning pic of Endeavour's last spacedock

By Phil Plait | May 31, 2011 6:43 am

NASA just released this breath-taking picture of the Orbiter Endeavour, taken on May 28th, just a day before it undocked from the International Space Station and began to make its way to Earth:

[Click to enshuttlenate.]

Incredible. The exposure time was long enough to show city lights streaking under the station, and I suspect tracked on the stars long enough to make them clear and obvious. I can’t identify the stars, but I think the southern dark nebula the Coal Sack can be seen on the left just above the limb of the Earth. I have no idea what cities we’re seeing here — don’t get me started! — but all together the elements here are simply and literally other worldly.

Endeavour is due to land on June 1st at 02:32 EDT (06:32 UTC).

Image credit: NASA

[UPDATE: Right after I posted this, NASA put up another incredible image of the Orbiter against the starry background. Amazing!]

Related posts:

Endeavour’s eye view of her last launch
A puzzling planet picture from the ISS
Followup: City lights from space
ISS checks Endeavour out

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (38)

  1. People can debate the overall value of the Shuttle and the ISS, but there is no question that they have provided us with some very pretty pitures.

  2. That is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen.

    And I just noticed that if you look at the picture close up, it seems like you can see stars through the Earth’s atmosphere. Which I suppose isn’t surprising, but I didn’t expect it. (Wait, did I just contradict myself? :-) )

  3. Colin Jagoe

    What’s that faint band of red above the earth? Aurora? or something else?

  4. Nishkam

    thats just refracted light from the sun, red has a very long wavelength…

  5. what about the purple?!

  6. Santiago

    Wow, if that IS the atmosphere then it looks far thicker than I thought it would be. Also I’m rather curious as to whether the camera was tracking something or not, the stars are indeed little bars when you look close enough, but shorter than the ‘bars’ made by the city lights, and I would guess that Endeavour would’ve been blurred if the camera had been tracking the stars.

    Anyway, awesome picture though!

  7. Gary Bryant
  8. Thomas

    I’m stunned. Two “stunning” posts in a row is too much for my stunned brain to take. Please go with amazing or some other superlative for a while, else I’ll be stunned into stupefaction. ūüėČ

  9. UmTutSut

    Seeing the empty payload bay is rather symbolic, isn’t it? Also makes me rather wistful. Only history will tell whether the shuttle was the DC-3 of the early space age…or the Boeing 247.

  10. Taylor

    Beautiful picture of the earth, the shuttle, and even mankind.

    And I’m going to take a complete stab in the dark and guess that those city lights are China. The right-hand corner area strikes me as looking a lot like the Yellow Sea.

  11. Pete Jackson

    What a wonderful picture! The detail on the shuttle is super-sharp.

    Yes, you can see the stars right through the airglow!

    Considering orbital motion alone, the stars will track 360 degrees in 90 minutes or a degree in 15 seconds. The lights below will track much faster, about one degree every second. Those inclined can try to calculate the exact exposure time, but I would guesstimate about one second.

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminous. :-)

    I’ve just set it as my “wallpaper.”

    @8. Thomas : Try any of these adjectives : breath-taking, jaw-dropping, supremely beautiful, splendid, glorious, marvellous, magnificent, awe-inspiring, wonderful, astounding, astonishing, superb, numinous*, brilliant and my personal favourite super-luminous ie beyond mere brilliance.

    The Human Thesaurus at your service! [bows] ūüėČ

    * Thankyou Carl Sagan’s Contact novel for that one! :-)

  13. Chris A.

    You got it right, Phil. That is the Coalsack at the lower left, and the Southern Cross to boot (lying on its side). The stars to the upper right of the Coalsack are those of Centaurus, and the fuzzy blob about half way between the leftmost tip of Endeavour’s left wing and the top of the frame is the showpiece globular cluster Omega Centauri! (There’s even a hint of NGC 5286 (AKA Caldwell 80), a mag. 7.4 globular to the upper left of Omega Cen.) The stars at the upper left of the frame are parts of Lupus, which the shuttle’s body covers up stars of Hydra and Corvus.

  14. Why is the edge of the atmosphere orange to the left of the shuttle and green to the right?

  15. Chris A.

    Oops. My last sentence should have read: “…WHILE the shuttle’s body cover up stars of Hydra and Corvus.”

  16. Chris A.

    P.S. The bright object near the upper left edge of the squarish thing at right center is Saturn (nestled up close to Porrima, a star in Virgo)!

  17. Lee L

    Great shots. These and the ones from last week with the station and shuttle in full sun with of course no stars visible makes me wonder why the heck NASA was not taking shots like this and making them public years ago. I guess they always forget the most important quote from The Right Stuff: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”. They might have a much easier time convincing people and most importantly members of congress that what they are doing is actually “real” if shots like this were around.

  18. Might that be Dextre in the foreground?

  19. Stunning shot, with the melancholy of being one of the last opportunities to take such a photograph.

    No need to track the stars, as the photo is taken roughly in the direction of the station’s motion, reducing the apparent motion of the starry background enough to avoid streaking.

  20. Pete Jackson

    @20Andrew: This isn’t Star Trek :-) The stars straight ahead will track as they rise. Only stars near the pole of the ISS orbit won’t appear to move.

  21. Dutch Railroader

    @20 & @21

    The stars will not move with respect to either the shuttle or ISS, unless they themselves are rotating, no matter what direction you are looking in. As the shuttle orbits the earth, to first approximation its orientation with respect to the stars will not change at all if 1) its rotation has been nulled out, and 2) no thrusters are fired, or no mass is jettisoned. In detail, tidal torques, residual atmosphere, and random venting will probably impart some small amount of rotation to either the shuttle or ISS, which is why the stars in the image have a small amount of trailing. In any case, once rotation of the spacecraft is nulled, for the astronauts inside the shuttle or ISS, the earth would appear to circle around them as they orbit, but the stars would not move at all.

  22. mfumbesi

    So beautiful, Earth has a “fake” look to it.

  23. The stars are so far away that the motion isn’t as apparent, like a car passing in front of you and an airplane in the distance, the car seems to move more than the airplane.

  24. Olle

    Beautiful picture, and the lands below? I may be biased being a Swede, but to me it looks like Scandinavia below the shuttle, with Endeavour’s fin cutting along the border between Norway and Sweden. The water area to the right should then be the Baltic and the bay between Finland and Estonia. To the left you’ll see the Atlantic, with the single light being Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik.

    Until someone can produce a better match-up, I’ll say it’s Scandinavia!

  25. JupiterIsBig

    #25 Dutch Railroader – the shuttle rotates once per orbit with respect to the earth’s centre – that way they can always look out of the same windows to see the earth and operate experiments like the radar that gave elevations for Nasa worldwind. (Is that where Google Earth gets its data ?) That’s why they have lots of solar panels – they’re very rarely at optimum angles.
    Therefore the stars will rotate around the shuttle once per orbit. There’s probably a very small modifier because it’s orbit may rotate around the earth – I’m not sure.

  26. That is one awesome photo! Love the city lights!

  27. Dutch Railroader


    Certainly one can induce a roll rate to track the earth, if you indeed have a reason for it, such as earth observation. I would be very surprised, however, if the ISS were to do this. Even a slowly rolling ISS would make docking with the shuttle very tricky, set up annoying microgravity across the station, make it laborious to track the sun with the solar panels, make for tricky EVAs, etc.

    The point I’m making in response to the earlier posts is that an spacecraft in orbit does not automatically roll to keep a fixed orientation with respect to the earth’s surface, unless one chooses to do so. As a result, the stars will not move. The Hubble, for example, stays inertially-fixed with respect to the stars, until it is deliberately slewed (ignoring a plethora of small torques nulled out by its fine guidance system).

    One amusing consideration is that as the Shuttle, or any other spacecraft, is injected into earth orbit, it must continually adjust its pitch during the injection burn to keep the acceleration vector tangent to the earth’s surface. This would preserve a slow roll parallel to the orbital axis, unless it is later nulled out…

  28. Captn Tommy

    I may be dating my self but the earth view reminds me of a certain line…
    Ah yes….

    “MY GOD! It’s full of Stars!”

  29. Dutch Railroader

    Looking more closely at the picture, you can note the thick “band” at the earth’s limb and the fact that stars apparently shine through the atmosphere. What has happened here over the duration of the exposure is that the limb of the earth has moved up or down WRT to the shuttle. This indeed as expected. The the orientation of the shuttle is fixed WRT the stars, while the earth appears to orbit around.

  30. According to the photo’s EXIF data, it was taken 2011/05/28 18:37:09 GMT. So using Wolfram Alpha and the stars as a guide, we’re looking south-west over Vietnam. Can’t quite tell the cities, but that’s the Singapore to Kuala Lumpur area to the left above the purple, and Saigon on the lower right. I think.

    Here’s an annotated version:

    Also, the twin stars above the white box thingy (technical talk, shh) are Saturn and Porrima, in Virgo.


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