Astronaut snaps amazing pic as ISS cargo ship burns up over Pacific

By Phil Plait | October 31, 2011 7:01 am

On April 27, 2011, a Russian Progress M-10M rocket launched into space from Kazakhstan, carrying supplies for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. It stayed docked to the ISS for nearly 181 days. On October 29, 2011 — last Saturday — it undocked, empty, filled with a half a year’s worth of cast-off detritus. It performed a routine de-orbit burn, dropped down into the Earth’s atmosphere, and disintegrated as it burned up at 12:54 UTC.

But not before U.S. astronaut Mike Fossum took this incredible picture of it from space:

[Click to embiggen.]

That shot is amazing. You can see the pieces of the spacecraft falling off as it rams through the Earth’s air at Mach 25 or so. You’re probably seeing the solar panels, antennae, and various other external bits being stripped off and leaving their own meteoric trails.

In the case of resupply ships, the time and place they de-orbit is tightly controlled. In this case, as usual, it was sent into the Pacific. That’s generally safe because the ocean is 160+ million square kilometers in area, and much of that real estate is empty of islands.

As the pieces hit the air, they compress it violently, heating it up (it’s not actually friction that does the majority of heating, but this ram pressure that does it). They slow down after this initial stage to just a few hundred km/hr, then fall freely into the ocean. That’s still fast, but most impacts from space debris aren’t nearly as fast as most people think. This same thing happens to meteors as well, but they’re moving much faster as they come in from interplanetary space, blasting in at a minimum of 11 km/sec (7 miles/sec). But the principle is the same. In fact, the bits of rock or metal in a meteoroid (as the solid part of a meteor is called) slow down to free fall speeds so high up they have plenty of time to cool, and usually don’t hit the ground and cause fires. I’ve heard some reports of them having frost on them instead!

Anyway, this Progress de-orbit comes on the heels of the successful launch of a Progress craft aboard a Soyuz rocket, taking pressure off both NASA and the Russian space agency to get supplies and people to and from ISS. That’s good news for NASA, which could use some right now.

Image credit: NASA. Thanks to Ben H. in the comments for correcting my statement about the Progress being empty!


Related posts:

- NASA ponders de-crewing the space station in November
- Soyuz rocket flaw found?
- What a falling star looks like… from space!
- The fiery descent of Atlantis… seen from space!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space

Comments (37)

  1. ceramicfundamentalist

    isn’t it just semantics to say it is ram pressure rather than friction that causes objects entering an atmosphere to heat up? would it be more accurate to just say that the space craft transfers some of its own kinetic energy to the individual molecules making it up as well as the surrounding air?

  2. Phil,
    You say “On October 29, 2011 — last Saturday — it undocked, empty.” You are correct that it would be empty of useful items. However, it would have been stuffed to the brim with garbage and waste. In fact I imagine the Progress vehicles are more full – by volume if not by weight – when they leave then when they arrive. I’ve heard the astronauts say that they start to smell before they close the hatch to kick it away because it is full of old food packaging, etc.

    - Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  3. amstrad

    I would imagine that the Progress craft is in front of ISS when it begins to burn up. The deorbit burn makes an elliptical orbit which intersects with the atmosphere, but as it drops altitude it speeds ahead of ISS. However once it starts to slow down the ISS would catch up.

    So where is ISS in relation to Progress when this was taken? (sorry if info is at the link, Twitter is blocked by my firewall).

  4. Blargh

    Nice picture!

    @ ceramicfundamentalist

    isn’t it just semantics to say it is ram pressure rather than friction that causes objects entering an atmosphere to heat up

    They’re completely different phenomena, even if the end result is the same (heat). It’s like comparing a bow drill and a fire piston.

  5. Ganzy

    Wow that’s a great picture.

    Can someone correct me please if I’m wrong, but if I were to analyze the entire spectrum of light that is being given off by this cargo ship burning up on re-entry, would I expect to see black absorption lines in specific parts of the spectrum that correlate with specific elements on the periodic table?

    And from that I could determine what elements – Iron, Silicon, chromium etc.. – the object is made from? Is that how it works?

    Finally, if my understanding above is correct, is this exactly the same process we use to determine the elemental composition of stars and planets/atmospheres over vast distances? Is my understanding of all this correct?

    Thanks

  6. Ganzy

    Ben H

    However, it would have been stuffed to the brim with garbage and waste.

    I’ve heard the astronauts say that they start to smell before they close the hatch to kick it away because it is full of old food packaging, etc.

    Apologies for my vulgar imagination but what you said above in combination with my comment on spectrum analysis had me imagining the absorption spectra of a white hot incoming space turd :D

    What do they with the solid organic human waste anyway is that sent back with cargo ship?

  7. Pepijn

    @Ganzy: I’m no expert, but wouldn’t you see emission lines, instead of absorption lines? And I’m not sure if you mean by analysing the image, but I don’t think that would work since the spectrum has been squashed into just red, green and blue frequencies and any absorption or emission lines would be gone.

  8. Pepijn

    @ceramicfundamentalist: I don’t agree that it’s just semantics. They are entirely different mechanisms. And while saying “that the space craft transfers some of its own kinetic energy to the individual molecules” is as accurate, it is less precise, as it doesn’t explain *how* the kinetic energy is transferred.

  9. @Ganzy
    There are closed system life support systems on ISS that recycle some of the liquid waste. All solid waste is thrown away on trash vehicles like the progress supply craft.

    - Ben H.

  10. Ganzy

    @Pepjin #6

    emission lines, instead of absorption lines?

    Yes maybe your right, I get mixed up with emission and absorption lines. If an obect is emmiting light and you looked at that light through a spectrometer you would see emission lines/frequencies pertaining to particular chemical elements.

    If the light from the object you are observing is reflected light, you would see absorption lines in your spectrometer corresponding to particular chemical elements that make up the object that is doing the reflecting.

    We know the the chemical composition of the sun because by observing emmision lines of hydrogen, sodium, helium etc in it’s spectra??

    We can analyze reflected sunlight from the moon and tell the chemical composition of the surface of the moon by looking at the absorption lines in the moons spectra??

    I’m not sure now, i’m getting myself confused. Off to watch some educational videos on the matter :D

  11. Ganzy

    @Ben H

    Interesting, thanks Ben.

  12. Thanks, Ben H (#2)! I corrected the text and added a note at the bottom.

    What do you do at MC, if I may ask?

  13. Phil,
    I am an ISS Flight Controller. Specifically I man the console position known as ADCO (Attitude Determination and Control Officer) – mostly on the off hour shifts because I am still one of the new guys in the office (been here 3 years). Thanks for being so quick to respond to reader comments. I have corrected you on similar minor factual errors regarding the ISS program before and you almost always catch them!

    - Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  14. Ganzy

    @Ben H

    As a serious enquiery aside from my toilet humour, would there be metabolic changes as a result of living in zero g and if so would these changes be detectable in the solid waste of the astronauts. Like increased or decreased levels of certain chemical compounds? A strange line of enquiery I understand, but interesting nontheless :D

  15. @Ganzy
    Unfortunately, I’m not a “squishy science” guy. My degree and job are in rocket science and not the biology side of spaceflight. I don’t think we’ve ever done experiments on the question you asked due to the unsanitary nature of the logistics. I would recommend reading Mary Roach’s book Packing for Mars. She does some great research into the human side of some of the less advertised aspects of NASA spaceflight such as the psychology, food, human metabolism, etc.

    http://www.amazon.com/Packing-Mars-Curious-Science-Life/dp/0393339912/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1320076735&sr=8-1

    - Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  16. Richard Engkraf

    Meteoroid: in space
    Meteor: in the atmosphere
    Meteorite: on the ground

  17. Nigel Depledge

    Ganzy (5) said:

    Can someone correct me please if I’m wrong, but if I were to analyze the entire spectrum of light that is being given off by this cargo ship burning up on re-entry, would I expect to see black absorption lines in specific parts of the spectrum that correlate with specific elements on the periodic table?

    Well, leaving aside the emission / absorption lines question, which seems already to have been addressed, no.

    Low-density gases give sharply-defined emission or absorption lines (depending largely on the temperature of the gas and whether electrons have been excited by some other form of emission such as UV). However, as density increases, the lines tend to blur out. A gas of sufficiently high density emits like a black body. Sodium vapour street lamps illustrate this point fairly well. Low-pressure sodium lamps issue a monochromatic (well, OK, there are two sodium emission lines that look orangey-yellow to us) light; medium pressure sodium lamps produce a pinky-white light that is broader in the range of wavelnegths it includes; and high-pressure sodium lamps produce a white light.

    And from that I could determine what elements – Iron, Silicon, chromium etc.. – the object is made from? Is that how it works?

    Finally, if my understanding above is correct, is this exactly the same process we use to determine the elemental composition of stars and planets/atmospheres over vast distances? Is my understanding of all this correct?

    In principle, yes. IIUC, however, the plasma produced when a space vehicle enters the atmosphere is too dense for this technique to work.

  18. Nigel Depledge

    Ganzy (10) said:

    We know the the chemical composition of the sun because by observing emmision lines of hydrogen, sodium, helium etc in it’s spectra??

    Not really.

    The main body of the sun is dense enough that it emits as a black body (more or less). However, the sun has an atmosphere of sorts, which contains highly rarefied gas, and absorbs some of the light from the surface of the sun. This makes dark absorbtion lines in the sun’s spectrum, from which we know the chemical composition of the sun.

    The same technique allows us to analyse other stars, and other galaxies.

    We can analyze reflected sunlight from the moon and tell the chemical composition of the surface of the moon by looking at the absorption lines in the moons spectra??

    I am not so sure about this, but I believe this could be done in principle, provided that allowance is made for the sun’s absorption lines.

  19. Paul

    isn’t it just semantics to say it is ram pressure rather than friction that causes objects entering an atmosphere to heat up?

    No, it’s not just semantics. I’ve corrected Phil on this before, to no avail, but let’s try one more time.

    Ordinary adiabatic compression, as occurs in a bicycle pump, causes air to become hot. However, this process is isentropic: if we ignore transfer of heat from the air to the cylinder walls, the process is entirely reversible. No entropy is generated. If you reexpand the air, doing work on the piston, then when the air gets back to ambient pressure the temperature is the same as when you started.

    This is NOT TRUE of what happens to air encountering a supersonic body. The air passes through a shock, and at the shock the properties of the air change over a very short distance (maybe ten mean free paths of the air molecules). Entropy, temperature, and pressure all increase. Kinetic energy is converted irreversibly into heat. You can think of what happens as a cushion of slower moving air building up in front of the body, and the incoming air runs into this cushion (and keeps it inflated).

    If the air that has passed through a shock is reexpanded back to its initial pressure, it will not return to its initial temperature. Energy has been dissipated irreversibly.

  20. Wayne on the Plains

    @19 Paul,

    While I admire your persistence on the topic, I just don’t think your explanation and Phil’s are sufficiently different to justify confusing many readers with too much detail. To quote Phil in the post, “As the pieces hit the air, they compress it violently, heating it up (it’s not actually friction that does the majority of heating, but this ram pressure that does it).” If you can make your version this brief and clear to average readers then you may get him to change, but I doubt it can be done. I am guessing, for example, that a majority of readers even here don’t have a clear understanding of entropy or its significance, and may have some serious misconceptions about supersonic shocks as well. Just getting people to understand that it’s not friction is victory enough.

  21. Ganzy

    @Nigel Depledge #15/16

    Thanks for your response Nigel, I got some cooking to do and some reading/watching up to do all in that order and will get back later.

  22. Infinite123Lifer

    What a crappy picture :)

  23. #10 Ganzy, #18 Nigel:
    Note that the element helium was discovered in the Sun ( hence its name ), before it was known to exist on Earth. Norman Lockyer found a set of spectral lines in the Sun’s spectrum, which didn’t correspond with those due to any known element, and correctly deduced that they must be due to a previously unknown element.

  24. @ceramicfundamentalist and @Blargh

    To my understanding of mechanical physics and what Phil was saying, the burning up of the cargo ship was a result of drag, a sort of air frictional force. This drag was transformed into thermal energy (hence the flames), and this coupled with the kinetic energy of the falling ship were equal to the gravitational potential energy of the ship, which was likely very high.

    @Phil and @Ben H.

    I remember you mentioning “Great news: Russians successfully launch Soyuz rocket to ISS!” post and comments that while the ISS was receiving new supplies and was getting rid of waste, it was also “decrewing”. I just wanted to inquire about the meaning of this. Is it just a transfer of astronauts to and from the ISS? It seems like that is the case, seeing as you say more were coming in as some were leaving, and it does really make sense for NASA and other space agencies to empty the ISS and leave an unmanned space station in space.

  25. @Tyler,

    The paragraph you refer to in Phil’s other post is:

    “This means it looks like the Russians have indeed figured out what went wrong in the previous launch and fixed the issue. I’ll be happier with two successful launches rather than one — they may have gotten it right by accident — but still, I bet a lot of folks at NASA are breathing easier now, and this will ease discussion of de-crewing the ISS, which NASA was considering a few months ago.”

    The last Progress supply vehicle that launched in August was lost during ascent. The Progress vehicles use the same launch vehicles as the manned Soyuz vehicles. If the ISS Program management cannot be convinced of the safety of the rocket before mid-November we will be forced to bring the current ISS crew home before the new crew launches so there will be a period of time without astronauts in space (for the first time in 11 years). This is what is being referred to as “De-crew” and no one wants to do it!

    Hope that helps.
    - Ben H.
    Mission Contro, Houston, TX

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    Good picture – never would have guessed it was taken from space if you hadn’t told us though. :-)

    @2. Ben H. :

    Phil,You say “On October 29, 2011 — last Saturday — it undocked, empty.” You are correct that it would be empty of useful items.

    I guess the important things is that it’s “empty” of astronauts! :-o

    I hope they check carefully that no-ones inside the Progress craft before it departs for its “viking funeral” re-entry. ;-)

    Wonder if they have any contingency plans to do something about it if someone was accidentally caught aboard when the Progress leaves on its final flight? Is that something they’ve considered and simulated and would they be capable of using the Progress craft as a “lifeboat” Aquarius (Apoll0-13 LEM) style if the need arose?

  27. Nigel Depledge

    Wayne on the Plains (20) said:

    While I admire your persistence on the topic, I just don’t think your explanation and Phil’s are sufficiently different to justify confusing many readers with too much detail.

    Well, I think Paul’s explanation is clear enough, but I eat entropy for breakfast*.

    To quote Phil in the post, “As the pieces hit the air, they compress it violently, heating it up (it’s not actually friction that does the majority of heating, but this ram pressure that does it).”

    As Paul points out, this is oversimplified to the point of wrong. IIUC, the ram pressure creates the shock wave and it’s the shock wave that does the heating.

    If you can make your version this brief and clear to average readers then you may get him to change, but I doubt it can be done.

    The compression of the atmosphere in front of the object creates a shock wave, and as air molecules pass through the shock wave, they heat up.

    I am guessing, for example, that a majority of readers even here don’t have a clear understanding of entropy or its significance, and may have some serious misconceptions about supersonic shocks as well. Just getting people to understand that it’s not friction is victory enough

    This is a very good point. Paul’s comment about entropy seems to be less an explanation of what actually happens and more an explanation of why Phil’s explanation is wrong. Even so, I agree that dispelling the friction myth is a victory, but if you are going to dispel one myth, why not replace it with the truth rather than another myth?

    * Well, no, actually, I don’t. But the entropy of my breakfast cereal increases dramatically after I have eaten it.

  28. @ 26. Messier Tidy Upper:
    They use the Soyuz spacecraft, not Progress, as “lifeboat” actually. There are two of them moored to the ISS.

    The Progress doesn’t have a reentry module (landing capsule): the Soyuz has. In the Progress design, the reentry module has been replaced by fuel tanks.

  29. Joseph G

    @26 MTU: I hope they check carefully that no-ones inside the Progress craft before it departs for its “viking funeral” re-entry. ;-)

    Am I the only one who thinks that this would be an absolutely epic way to go? Like if you had terminal cancer or something, and you were able to take the Slim Pickens way out (sans the nuclear holocaust of course)?

    In all seriousness, the “Viking funeral” idea; would that not be a fantastic way for people to remember you? A capsule with your body is braked into a relatively steep re-entry (for predictability’s sake) Everyone gathers in the twilight on the beach to share a few things about you, and at the appointed time, a brilliant shooting star slowly scuds across the sky… That’s how I’d want to be remembered, if it were possible and I had the choice.
    Plus it takes care of cremation and ash-scattering all in one shot.

    Meh, pardon my morbidity today. I got fired, so everything is death and doom with me.

  30. Joseph G

    @27 Nigel Depledge: * Well, no, actually, I don’t. But the entropy of my breakfast cereal increases dramatically after I have eaten it.

    Haha. How about this: “You’re gonna eat energy and you’re gonna crap entropy!”

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    @28. Marco Langbroek : Thanks for that. Much appreciated. :-)

    @ 29. Joseph G : Am I the only one who thinks that this would be an absolutely epic way to go?

    Not at all – I feel exactly the same way on that. Plus the “Viking funerals”, it seems, have Jedi and Time Lord – plus Star Trek (eg. Spock in movies II & III) – approval. ;-)

    BTW. Sorry to hear about your (ex)job – that really sucks. I know having been through that myself. Sympathies and hope something good comes along for you soonest. :-(

    @ 25. Ben H. :

    If the ISS Program management cannot be convinced of the safety of the rocket before mid-November we will be forced to bring the current ISS crew home before the new crew launches so there will be a period of time without astronauts in space (for the first time in 11 years). This is what is being referred to as “De-crew” and no one wants to do it! Hope that helps.
    - Ben H. Mission Control, Houston, TX

    Thanks for that & all the other info you’ve contributed here – much appreciated. :-)

    Really hoping we can keep the International Space Station occupied (albiet NOT in the protest sense of the word! ;-) ) continuously and avoid having to decrew. Any idea when we are likely to know more and have a decision confirmed & made public?

  32. @Messier,
    Well the new 45P vehicle just docked to ISS not 5 minutes ago as I type this so that success will go a long way to getting us back into full mission ops. At this point everyone is expecting an on-time launch of 28S in November, the problem is if anything comes up that prevents them from going on time there may not bbe time to react and we will have to de-crew a week later. That’s the scenario I’m worried about now and we won’t know until it happens.

    - Ben H.

  33. Article about the docking from the great guys at spaceflightnow.com

    http://www.spaceflightnow.com/station/exp29/111102p45pdock/

  34. Joseph G

    @31 MTU: Plus the “Viking funerals”, it seems, have Jedi and Time Lord – plus Star Trek (eg. Spock in movies II & III) – approval. ;-)

    Heh, good point. Though I do wonder why they bothered to make Spock’s casket reentry-capable if they thought he was truly dead. If they wanted to interr him planetside, why not just beam the casket into a cave?

    BTW. Sorry to hear about your (ex)job – that really sucks. I know having been through that myself. Sympathies and hope something good comes along for you soonest. :-(

    Thanks much! It’s nice to hear (er, well, you know) those words today.

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    @32 & #33 Ben H. : Cheers (belated but sincere) for that. Much appreciated. :-)

  36. Matt B.

    @27 Nigel Depledge: “As Paul points out, this is oversimplified to the point of wrong. IIUC, the ram pressure creates the shock wave and it’s the shock wave that does the heating.”

    That’s like saying that guns don’t kill people, it’s the bullets that kill them. No, wait, it’s not the bullets, it’s the holes made by the bullets. Wait again, it’s not the holes, but the loss of blood that the holes allow. But then it’s not the blood loss itself, it’s the lack of oxygen to the brain…

    Seriously, if the ram pressure causes the shockwave and the shock wave causes the heating, then the ram pressure does cause the heating.

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