Atlantis, one last time in the Sun

By Phil Plait | July 22, 2011 11:04 am

Thierry Legault has done it again!™

Thierry, an amateur astronomer from Belgium France, has had many of his amazing photographs grace this blog, and just yesterday I was wondering what he would get from the last Space Shuttle mission. As if on cue, he alerted me about his latest set of pictures, including this amazing shot of Atlantis moving across the face of the Sun:


[Click to enspaceplanenate.]

This is a combination of four images, with the position of Atlantis marked with circles. He took that shot in Germany just 21 minutes before the de-orbit burn, meaning this may be one of the last images ever taken of an Orbiter actually in orbit (the picture I posted earlier today taken from the space station shows Atlantis as it was moving through our atmosphere, when it was no longer in orbit).

A few days earlier, in the Czech Republic, Thierry captured Atlantis and the ISS less than an hour after the Orbiter had undocked:

I marked the position of the two with an arrow; again, click to embiggen. You can clearly see the two orbiting objects in silhouette against the Sun, with sunspots festooning the solar surface 150 million kilometers farther away.

I imagine over the next few days we’ll be seeing other dramatic images of this final mission of the Space Shuttle. Thierry has more on his site as well.

As I’ve pointed out many times, I’ve had mixed feelings about the Shuttle program (you can read a very harsh but not unfair review of the program by Discover Magazine editor Amos Zeeberg), but it has provided us with an astonishing reminder that as of 50 years ago, we became a space-faring species. Some of our steps in this past half-century have been faltering, and some have been firm and confident. But I hope that in the long run, our current first steps will eventually turn into giant leaps and bounds.


Related posts:

Seriously jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS!
Discovery spacewalk seen from the ground
Discovery’s last moment in the Sun
Ridiculously awesome pic of Discovery and the ISS taken from the ground!

Comments (17)

Links to this Post

  1. The Dawn of a New Era | AndTherefore.com | July 28, 2011
  1. thank you Philip! (just one point: although I have nothing against Belgians who are our frendly neighbours, I’m only French)
    This Calsky diagram with captions shows the path of Atlantis between the transit and its landing, about 90 minutes later: http://legault.perso.sfr.fr/atlantis_110721_calsky.jpg

    Mixed feelings about the shuttle program are common, some people even call it “America’s most successful setback”, or something like that. Anyway, this was a fantastic machine and seeing a shuttle at launch or in space is (sorry: was) an incredible experience

  2. Jabjabs

    Holy Heck a doodle! That’s awesome!

  3. Gary Ansorge

    ,,,and some of the technologies that might make those “leaps and bounds” possible are:

    1) Balloon supported mass driver(by Mike Combs)
    2) Space tethers(still waiting for long, strong carbon nano tube development)
    3) Ground based power sources transmitting their power to a space craft via micro waves( by Leik Myrabo)
    4) Nuclear powered thrusters(like the nuclear light bulb)

    Any or all of these primary launch systems have the potential to transcend chemically fueled rockets and reduce launch costs by several orders of magnitude.

    Now, all we need is some REAL money invested in these infrastructure projects(I’m thinking in the tens of billions).

    Gary 7

  4. Cool! I had set up my old refractor with its sun projection set-up the other day at what must have been the same time as the first photograph was taken. The sunspot at lower left and the nearby bright facula close to the limb were especially prominent. From where I’m at, I guess Atlantis would have been quite a few degrees away from the sun’s disk.

  5. What? I could’ve sworn you told me you were Belgian but moved to France. I must’ve been thinking of someone else. My apologies, and I fixed the text.

  6. No waffles for Dr. BA. :(

  7. Chief

    Another amazing shot. well done.

    I feel sad for the end of the shuttle program and a bit mad. Here at the end of the program and the last mission gets all the press and pretty pics that should have been presented in as much fan fair all along. I’ve said it before, NASA needs to hire a really good PR Man and milk itself for all its worth. That will show the world all that they can do and more.

    Lets start with Thierry Legault for the visual and Phil for the man in the street’s explanation.

  8. @ ^ Chief : Well said & seconded by me. :-)

    Thankyou Thierry Legault & Phil Plait for this superb photographic sequence.
    C’est tres Magnifique! :-)

    Thierry Legault must be an official french national living treasure. ;-)

  9. you can read a very harsh but not unfair review of the program by Discover Magazine editor Amos Zeeberg,

    But he won’t let you comment on it there. :-(

    I did think Amos Zeeberg’s article was far too harsh and unfair.

    Yes, the Space Shuttles weren’t perfect and didn’t quite live up to all the early expectations and yet I still think they were one of the very finest things human minds have ever created and human hands have ever built.

    The Shuttle program has given us so much – a personal, off the top of my head, top ten list:

    1. It has flown more human individuals into orbit than any other craft incl. the likes of John Glenn, Sally Ride (first female astronaut) , Andy Thomas (the first Aussie astronaut who hails from my home town), the first African-American astronaut and along with so many others.

    2. The Shuttles launched and then flew several repair and upgrade missions to the Hubble Space observatory. In my view this feat alone made the Shuttle worth it and has given us all, well, just so incredibly much in the way of science and beauty and wonder.

    3. The Shuttle launched the Magellan spaceprobe that mapped Venus in unparalled detail in the early 1990’s.

    4. The Shuttle launched the Galileo spaceprobe to Jupiter flying past asteroid Gaspra for Humanity’s first close up encounter of an asteroid en route and subsequently orbiting our solar systems largest and nearest gas giant giant planet for years gifting us so much new knowledge and spectacular images of this gargantuan world.

    5. The Space Shuttles lifted to orbit and made possible the International Space Station.

    6. The Space Shuttles took three of the four NASA Great Observatories into Low Earth Orbit – the Chandra X-ray space observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory as well as the HST mentioned already at #2.

    7. The Space Shuttles launched the Ulysses spaceprobe on its long and rewarding if unheralded odyssey to the Solar poles and Jupiter – and back repeatedly.

    8. The Shuttles gave us so many new – and fixed satellites – and so much more experience with launching them. We rely on any of these satellites today in a variety of ways.

    9. The Space Shuttles worked on international diplomacy bringing America and Russia closer together and helped them work co-operatively on such missions as the trips to Russia’s old Mir space station.

    10. The Shuttle flew spacelab into orbit on a number of flights – a dedicated space science station within the Shuttles cargo bay.

    The Space Shuttles were also a learning experience – the first spaceplanes ever built, the first reusable spacecraft ever built and I suspect the largest, heaviest and most technologically advanced gliders ever constructed.

    IMHON, The Shuttles were the best method we’ve yet had of sending people and cargo into the Black and will likely hold that record for a long time to come.

    Statistically, surely they’d have to be the most successful craft ever with them flying so many missions, doing so much science and transporting so many people into the skies.

    I suspect we’ll only really appreciate how good the Space Shuttles were now they’ve gone. :-(

  10. Oh and for all the words and statistics and firsts, just watch the video linked to my name here for one heckuva powerful reason why I think the Space Shuttles are such wonderful, superluminous marvels of human technology. The second greatest thing humanity has ever built after the Apollo-Saturn V rocket systems in my humble view.

    This is what we’ll be missing out on now.

    My all-time favourite ever Youtube video – the launch of Atlantis on STS-129. :-)

    *****

    PS. Yes, I might’ve posted this clip before just a few times – but this is for those who haven’t yet seen it or wish to see it again – I’ll never get tired of seeing this one myself. ;-)

    Hope that’s okay, apologies and please let me know if not.

  11. Nigel Depledge

    Oh dear, Messier, I don’t agree with your argument.

    MTU (9) said:

    Yes, the Space Shuttles weren’t perfect

    And also weren’t the way they had originally been conceived.

    and didn’t quite live up to all the early expectations

    They didn’t live up to any of the initial expectations : Cheaper, easier, commonplace access to LEO. These are what Shuttle (as originally conceived) was supposed to have given us.

    and yet I still think they were one of the very finest things human minds have ever created and human hands have ever built.

    While it is a massive tribute to the engineers that they worked at all, I think Apollo was a finer thing by far. Apollo, at least, achieved what it had set out to achieve.

    The Shuttle program has given us so much – a personal, off the top of my head, top ten list:

    1. It has flown more human individuals into orbit than any other craft incl. the likes of John Glenn, Sally Ride (first female astronaut) , Andy Thomas (the first Aussie astronaut who hails from my home town), the first African-American astronaut and along with so many others.

    It has also killed more humans than any other space vehicle. Just two disasters killed 14 people.

    But that aside, this is nothing compared to what it was supposed to have done. Imagine if there had been 20 shuttle flights a year (albeit with crews of just 3 or 4) since 1981.

    2. The Shuttles launched and then flew several repair and upgrade missions to the Hubble Space observatory. In my view this feat alone made the Shuttle worth it and has given us all, well, just so incredibly much in the way of science and beauty and wonder.

    Granted. But this does not necessarily distinguish it from what it could have been.

    3. The Shuttle launched the Magellan spaceprobe that mapped Venus in unparalled detail in the early 1990′s.

    Irrelevant. A single-use launcher could have done just as good a job.

    4. The Shuttle launched the Galileo spaceprobe to Jupiter flying past asteroid Gaspra . . . .

    Also irrelevant, as this, too , could just as easily have been launched on a single-use rocket.

    5. The Space Shuttles lifted to orbit and made possible the International Space Station.

    I would certainly not put this in the top ten.

    6. The Space Shuttles took three of the four NASA Great Observatories into Low Earth Orbit – the Chandra X-ray space observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory as well as the HST mentioned already at #2.

    Again, irrelevant, since these could as easily have been launched on single-use rockets.

    7. The Space Shuttles launched the Ulysses spaceprobe on its long and rewarding if unheralded odyssey to the Solar poles and Jupiter – and back repeatedly.

    And again.

    8. The Shuttles gave us so many new – and fixed satellites – and so much more experience with launching them. We rely on any of these satellites today in a variety of ways.

    And again.

    9. The Space Shuttles worked on international diplomacy bringing America and Russia closer together and helped them work co-operatively on such missions as the trips to Russia’s old Mir space station.

    This also does not distinguish the shuttle we got from what Shuttle should have been.

    10. The Shuttle flew spacelab into orbit on a number of flights – a dedicated space science station within the Shuttles cargo bay.

    True, but how significant is this? Was not Spacelab a project to justify the huge cost of Shuttle?

    Shuttle should have been a far smaller vehicle. As such, it should not have needed the ET and certainly would not have needed the SRBs. The original design concept would have had a far lower payload capacity, but would have been far more likely to deliver the promise of cheap and routine manned access to LEO.

    Unfortunately, rather than conduct their own tests, NASA went to the USAF and said “hey, you’ve tested hypersonic rocket planes, can you share your data with us?” and the USAF said “Sure, but you gotta make Shuttle big enough to launch our whopping great big spy satellites”.

    What NASA should have done at this point is say “OK, sod you, then, we’ll get our own data”. But they did not. The rest is now history.

    Shuttle is a fine achievement until you start thinking about what should have been.

  12. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (9) said:

    Statistically, surely they’d have to be the most successful craft ever with them flying so many missions, doing so much science and transporting so many people into the skies.

    Statistically, Soyuz is the most reliable vehicle.

  13. Pertaining to the undock picture:

    Normally in images from the ground like Thierry’s we only see the ISS in one orientation – from below with both big solar array trusses out to either side, clearly visible. In this case, the photo was snapped during the time frame that ISS was doing big maneuvers to and from a photo opportunity orientation (attitude) during the Orbiter flyaround activities. Thus, the odd configuration of ISS in the photo is probably due to the photo being taken during part of those maneuvers.

    Hope that helps!
    – Ben H.
    ISS Flight Controller
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  14. samm

    Amongst all this post shuttle reflection, I wonder how things would be if projects like the Dyna-Soar had come to fruition 40 years ago.

  15. @12. Nigel Depledge :

    Statistically, Soyuz is the most reliable vehicle.

    Maybe but I’m talking successful not reliable here! ;-)

    @11. Nigel Depledge :

    Oh dear, Messier, I don’t agree with your argument.

    Ah well, that’s okay. I don’t always agree with yours either! ;-)

    They [the Space Shuttles] didn’t live up to any of the initial expectations : Cheaper, easier, commonplace access to LEO. These are what Shuttle (as originally conceived) was supposed to have given us.

    A reusueable spaceplane – yep.

    A craft that launches like a rocket and lands like a glider – yep.

    A craft capable of launching the Hubble Space telescope and much more into orbit – yep.

    As for “commoplace access” to LEO I’d say the Shuttle managed this at least although commonplace is a bit of a non-specific term here. ;-)

    ,While it is a massive tribute to the engineers that they worked at all, I think Apollo was a finer thing by far. Apollo, at least, achieved what it had set out to achieve.

    Well, yes, the Apollo-Saturn V was a better craft in some ways and probably the greatest vehicle (or even thing) that Humanity has ever built. I’ve said that much myself.

    It has also killed more humans than any other space vehicle. Just two disasters killed 14 people.

    True – but that’s because it flew more people at a time than any other spacecraft has ever accomplished and because it has flown more often than any spacecraft has ever done except perhaps for the Soyuz – which while great in its way has also killed its share of cosmonauts and had its troubles.

    Spaceflight, like mountaineering, like motor-racing, like so much else, even just being alive at all is intrinisically dangerous.

    But that aside, this is nothing compared to what it was supposed to have done. Imagine if there had been 20 shuttle flights a year (albeit with crews of just 3 or 4) since 1981.

    Yeah, we were supposed to have Moon colonies and people on Mars and cheap and easy nuclear fusion by now too. None of that has happened. I’m disappointed it hasn’t. I wish it had. I also wish the Shuttle had been all it was originally cracked up to be too. But it doens’t stop me appreciating what it has done and what we *have* had either.

    Did the Space Shuttle do what everyone hoped? No.

    Has it still done some marvellous things and been worthwhile? Yes, I think so. I think the HST alone makes the Space Shuttle program worthwhile.

    MTU : “3. The Shuttle launched the Magellan spaceprobe that mapped Venus in unparalled detail in the early 1990′s.”
    Irrelevant. A single-use launcher could have done just as good a job.

    Maybe but a single-use Launcher did NOT lift Magellan into flight.

    The ShuttleAtlantis, STS-30 on May 4th 1989 to be precise – *did.* So a little credit where it’s due okay?

    Ditto for the Galileo spaceprobe to Jupiter – launched by the Atlantis again in October 1989.

    I would certainly not put this in the top ten.

    Well, since this is *my* list of “Top Ten Space Shuttle achievements”, I would! [shrug!] ;-)

    Yeah, it’s subjective and somewhat arbritrary. If you wish to draw up your own top ten of Space Shuttle accomplishments, please do go ahead. That could make for an interesting comparison. :-)

    This also does not distinguish the shuttle we got from what Shuttle should have been.

    Yes, but we got the Space Shuttle we got – okay, itwasn’t quite what we hoped. It didn’t smell of roses, it couldn’t go FTL or time travel, it was just the Space Shuttle we’ve watched and enjoyed and now seen pass into history.

    So do we mourn what it wasn’t?

    Or do we appreciate what it was?

    I prefer the latter option admittedly with a slight tinge of the first mixed in. Yeah, the Space Shuttle didn’t quite live up to our initial hopes for it – but yet it still did a lot that was pretty wonderful and superb.

    Was not Spacelab a project to justify the huge cost of Shuttle?

    Maybe. But even if I grant you that does it then render Spacelab a failure or make it any less a successful accomplishment?

    Shuttle is a fine achievement ..

    Yes, yes, it was.

    .. until you start thinking about what should have been.

    Maybe so. It could’ve been amillion and one things that it wasn’t.

    It *was* – in my view – still a mighty fine and marvellous spaceplane.

  16. Chris A.

    @Nigel Depledge (#11):

    >> 4. The Shuttle launched the Galileo spaceprobe to Jupiter flying past asteroid Gaspra . . .

    > Also irrelevant, as this, too , could just as easily have been launched on a single-use rocket.

    Oh, but the launch of Galileo should probably be listed in the shuttle’s hall of shame, not its hall of fame. It has been argued that the post-Challenger launch delays (which would not have occurred had Galileo been launched on a single-use rocket) were responsible for lubricant in Galileo turning to sticky goo, which ultimately prevented the mission from returning any more than a fraction of the data it was designed to collect after the high-gain antenna failed to fully deploy.

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