Cool picture of Expedition 29 on its way home

By Phil Plait | December 30, 2011 7:00 am

When Expedition 29 astronauts Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov, and Satoshi Furukawa returned to Earth from the ISS on November 21, Dan Burbank stayed aboard the station and got this dramatic picture of them coming home:

[Click to deorbitenate.]

See it? The returning Soyuz capsule itself is the bright dot in the center of the picture, and you can see the trail of plasma behind it, pointing almost straight down. It’s almost lost against the city lights below it.

I couldn’t find this picture on NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography, unfortunately, but a little sleuthing gleans some info anyway. The picture’s header says it was taken on November 22 at 02:03 GMT, and Wolfram Alpha kindly told me that this put the space station over Turkey at the time. This view is looking toward the east; I know that due to the rising Sun at that time (given the time, it can’t be sunset to the west). Also, as the Soyuz capsule carrying the astronauts home dropped to a lower orbit, it would have pulled ahead of the higher space station, and that would put it farther east. Since it’s in the picture, that means the astronaut was looking east when he took this shot. The capsule landed in Kazakstan, so I’m guessing the body of water you can see is the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, though I’m not sure just where (are the ground tracks available online? I can’t find them anywhere). [Update: In the comments below, Marco Langbroek thinks it may actually be the northeast part of the Black Sea. He’s quite possibly right; the picture header is only good to the nearest minute, and the ISS travels a long way in 60 seconds — nearly 500 kilometers! His numbers are likely to be far more accurate than mine.]

Being able to see something like this from the space station must be indescribable. But we can get a taste… about a month before this, on October 29th, a Progress 42P capsule that had brought supplies up to the crew undocked and dropped down into Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike the Soyuz capsule pictured above, the Progress capsule was unmanned, and was allowed to burn up during re-entry. NASA compiled the photos taken by an astronaut and made this amazing but too-short video of the event:

[You can watch the original here; I put the video above on YouTube for ease of access.]

Wow. I can’t imagine what it must be like to look down — if that’s the right word in microgravity — to Earth and see that. You can actually see pieces falling off and flaring as they burn up! The arc above the horizon is due to airglow; atoms in the upper atmosphere glowing from energy stored up during the day.

You can see more Expedition 29 videos on NASA’s site, and the Gateway site I mentioned above has tons of incredible videos made from astronaut photography.

Credit: NASA

Related posts:

JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse! (MUST SEE video)
An astronaut’s away-from-home movie: Fragile Oasis
A celestial visitor, seen from space
Flying around the Earth

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Comments (10)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Now *that* was S-P-E-C-T-A-C-U-L-A-R! 8)

    Awe inspiring. Literally. Wow. Also thankyou. :-)

  2. I actually think it is the northeastern coast of the Black Sea, not Kaspian Sea.

    ISS was at 41.133 N, 38.075 E at that time, over northeast Turkey and the trajectory would take it over the Black Sea and Caucasus before reaching the Kaspian Sea.

    ISS trajectory:
    02:00 27.212 33.860
    02:01 30.584 36.369
    02:02 34.196 38.819
    02:03 38.075 41.133
    02:04 42.244 43.287
    02:05 46.723 45.259
    02:06 51.520 47.021
    02:07 56.637 48.547
    02:08 62.056 49.807
    02:09 67.742 50.777
    02:10 73.636 51.434

  3. …and from that (my post above), comparing it with Google Earth, I think what we see in the image is the Black Sea coast of the Republic of Georgia. With the Soyuz capsule over the Caucasus.

  4. I note that the Wolfram Alpha link provides marginally different coordinates for 02:03 UTC, 22 Nov, compared to what I posted in my comment above.
    To clarify: the data in my comment above are based on an elset of epoch 11325.96585887 (= Nov 21.97), plugged into Orbitron software (with a check in another program as well, which gives the same coordinates). Can’t explain the slight difference, but perhaps the Wolfram Alpha coordinates might be calculated from an elset dating somewhat earlier on Nov 21.

  5. After staring at a nocturnal mosaic image, I think I have it. The bright city to the upper left is Volgograd, and Krasnodar is at the lower left corner. The image just misses Rostov-on-Don and the Sea of Azov, and includes the Black Sea coast between Novorossisk and Batumi. Astro reference – the Russian Academy of Sciences’ 6-meter optical telescope, and 600-meter annular radio telescope, are in that roundish dark area middle right.

  6. Tony Mach

    The bright spot on the tip of left solar array would then be Kiev, right? You can see what would then be the three roads (two to the west, on to the south) to Malyn, Korostyshiv and Bila Tserkva.

    [No, I am wrong, see my post below]

  7. Tony Mach

    The population on the Caspian Sea is much lower, less lights:

    It must be the Black Sea.

    And yes, the bright spot is in fact as NGC3314 says Volgograd.

    Is that Sevastopol on the lower left?

    The bright spot on the right is Astrakhan. No, strike that, that is wrong too.

    Ah, I give up. Has the image been mirrored?

  8. Mark Suszko

    Is that another object also reentering in the top left of the picture, between the top of the solar panel, and just below the horizon? In the blow-up pic, it sure looks like a reentry trail and not a smear from camera motion. The Soyuz docking adapter, maybe? Or something else falling? Meteorite? Seems to coming in more steeply there.

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    @Marco Langbroek, NGC3314 & Tony Mach : Thanks for your informative comments here. :-)

    (Surprised to find my own earlier comment makes as much sense as it does given how tired I was and how pickled I’d got last night! Sorry if I end up gushing too much over these or somewhat incoherent at the end of a long night – which, natch, is early morning US time.)

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    Incidentally, this really rather reminds me of Spock’s funeral and his casket descending to the surface of the Genesis Planet in Star Trek movie II The Wrath of Khan & III ‘ The Search for Spock’ FWIW.


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