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.