Endeavour's last flight… seen FROM SPACE!

By Phil Plait | September 25, 2012 11:24 am

I didn’t say much about the last flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour here on the blog (though I did tweet links to some cool pictures, so follow me on Twitter to stay up on that sort of thing) mostly because I knew pictures would be coming in so fast I wouldn’t be able to keep up!

But then one very special image came along, and I just had to put it here: Endeavour and its 747 ride as seen from the DigitalGlobe satellite:

This image was featured on the Google Earth blog (which also provides a KML file so you can see it for yourself if you have the GE software installed). At the time, the 747 and the Orbiter were about 40 km southeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Note that I rotated the picture a bit to fit better here on the blog.

Here’s a zoom of the plane and Orbiter. The blue shadow is an artifact, created due to the satellite swapping out filters as it took pictures. Because the plane was moving, you get what’s essentially a double exposure. But you can see the real shadow in the big picture above.

Endeavour was on its way to Edwards Air Force Base at the time (and eventually to the Los Angeles Airport) in California, and will soon be transferred via surface roads to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. If you thought LA traffic was bad before…

I’ll note that a lot of people were sad to see this last flight of the Orbiter. I’ll admit my own feelings are mixed – I’ve written about this before. While the Shuttles were magnificent machines, they were only designed to go into low Earth orbit, and our destiny is in much deeper space. And it’s my strong fact-based opinion that we are still well on our way to that destination. It won’t be right away, but it won’t necessarily be too long, either.

The last flight of Endeavour may be bittersweet, but looking back only helps if you use the past as a basis to venture farther in the future. And we have the whole sky open to us. We just have to choose to do it.

I choose the future. I hope others do as well.

Image credit: Google Earth

Related Posts:

Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
Debating space
NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space (NOTE: the title I chose for this was misleading, so I wrote an addendum to the post in the first paragraph)


Comments (23)

  1. Bryan

    Before some fool chimes in here with “DERP WE HAVE TO BUM RIDES FROM TEH RUSSIANS” I’ll just point out the 8-year gap between the end of the Apollo program and the beginning of the STS.

    Progress isn’t instant gratification.

    Great pic. Thanks for posting.

  2. Baris

    I choose the future!! ūüėÄ

  3. CharonPDX

    Not only were they only supposed to go into LEO, they were also only supposed to be operational for 10-15 years! (Although they were supposed to fly nearly 100 times EACH during that time…) It’s amazing looking at the circa-1975 shuttle program plans… Even as late as 1985 they were expecting to have one launch per month from each of two launch sites by the end of ’86! The Challenger loss changed everything.

  4. I think the Planetary Society has a good point about experimenting with ACClarke’s old idea of solar/galactic sailing. While it’s not the fastest propulsion around, and may not be suitable for human travel, it seems to offer sustained acceleration for very little fuel.

  5. Pete Jackson

    Stunning picture! The 747 must have been flying at a very low altitude for the shadow to be so sharp. The ‘fuzziness’ of the shadow is only about 1/15th the length of the 747, which length is about 215 feet. So, the fuzziness is only about 14 feet. The sun is about half a degree or about 1/120th of a radian in angular size, so the altitude of the 747 to produce that amount of fuzziness would be about 14 times 120 or 1700 feet (above the ground).

    Did they do the entire flight at such a low altitude, so people everybody could get a good look? Or was there something special going on near Las Cruces?

  6. Wzrd1

    They had to cut down 400 trees to clear a route for the shuttle.
    When interviewed, some residents were unhappy, in spite of their new acquisition for their community, due to the loss of trees.
    Upon being informed that the lost trees were being replaced two for one, all were quite happy with their new neighbor. :)

    Sometimes, it’s not what is presented, but HOW it’s presented.
    May the good people of California enjoy their exhibit.

    As for space, we *REALLY* could use a MEO space station as a logistics and support station and a lunar station for refueling for interplanetary and asteroid exploration, whether said stations are manned or not.

  7. Steve D

    I loved the shuttles and saw the final launch, but they were an idea that looked good on paper but didn’t work in practice. Until we get propulsion an order of magnitude more efficient than now, I think vertical lift rockets and capsules will be the way to go. As for an “MEO space station,” the Earth’s radiation belts present a major obstacle to a manned station. Much as I loved Kubrick’s double wheel in 2001, I doubt we’ll ever have one. Oh, those are fantastic pictures.

  8. MadScientist

    I’m not sad – they had their run and the crews and machines performed very well throughout the decades. The only thing I’m sad about is that there’s no replacement ready. Although our history with space flight is still very short, I was hoping we’d have a replacement before the fleet retired just as the shuttle was almost ready as the Apollo missions were cancelled. At the moment we seem an awful long way from the ‘almost ready’ stage.

  9. Timothy from Boulder

    A minor clarification to the description of the color misregistration. The satellite was not swapping out filters during the image. It continually takes images line-by-line, like in a photocopier or scanner. This is called a pushbroom imager. It simultaneously takes lines in separate color bands, but the sensors filtered for color are in a slightly different position on the image plane. If an object moves quickly, it appears in a different place in the color image than in the grayscale image.

    It appears as if the red-filtered channel was not used in this image; often you’ll see a reddish ghost image on the opposite side of the aircraft.

    When multiple color ghosts are present, it is possible to determine whether an image was taken by QuickBird, WorldView-1, or WorldView-2 due to the number, color, and locations of the color banding. I’m not sure which this was, but the ultra-curious could match flight times to orbital elements of the satellites, if interested.

    (Optical Integration and Alignment Engineer / QuickBird, WorldView-1)

  10. JoW

    @5 (Pete Jackson)
    The reason the shuttle was so low was that it was on the way to White Sands Missile Range/White Sands Test Facility. Both locations were involved with the Shuttle program. Plus the aircraft had taken off from Biggs AAF in El Paso Tx where it had stopped for refueling just prior to this picture.

  11. Tara Li

    Sure, the Shuttle only went to LEO – but that’s all it should have *HAD* to do. It’s sad to see how the whole program was almost wasted. All we ended up with is a habitrail(TM) satellite that can’t even rotate, so we have no clue on how much gravity is actually needed to prevent calcium loss from bones and other issues. For that matter, how much of the ISS’s atmosphere is hydroponically recycled? We’ve become so seriously risk-adverse, we’re really not going to get anything done until the private ventures get fully up to speed.

  12. Cokehead

    Tara, I’m pretty sure private ventures are not going to risk the billions it would take to just find out how to make it easier to explore space. It’s too risky, and there won’t be any profit in it for quite a long time. I agree that we need to be investing a lot more in space; but handing that money to a private enterprise won’t accomplish anything. Their job is to make a profit; it is not make the world a better, more knowledgeable place.

  13. ND

    Thanks for the explanation of the imaging artifact, but I’m sure some people will come up with theories of secret government technology and a coverup to hide it.

  14. Regner Trampedach

    ND @ 14: Secret, blue, ghost-planes? I see them all the time! They are just very hard to make out against a blue sky… Elvis and the Loch Ness monster use them for their travels, together with the Martians who shot the faked Moon-landing footage on a sound-stage in Valles Marineris…
    Rats, – I didn’t get 9/11 worked into that :-/
    Cheers, Regner :-)

  15. ND

    “Rats, ‚Äď I didn‚Äôt get 9/11 worked into that :-/”

    Yeah, a real conspiracist would connect it to 9/11.

  16. Patrick

    @Timothy from boulder(#9)
    You can’t see it in this picture(maybe it was lost during the rotation that Phil did?), but there is actually a reddish preimage on the shadow in some of the versions of this image. Does that make any sense?

    Here’s an example of the photo with the red shadow pre-image.

    You can also see a little blue ghosting behind the red preimage of the shadow too.

  17. Matt B.

    Speaking of conspiracy theories, I was reading The Book of General Ignorance today, and it seems the original moon landing deniers might have been the Flat Earth Society.

  18. Altair

    What I find remarkable is the huge volume of attention given to the internment of America’s euthanized space fleet. It’s almost a morbid fascination of the nation’s knowingly watch itself sleepwalk off of a cliff.

  19. @ #9 (Timothy from Boulder): Thanks for pointing that out, I was going to write a similar comment. By the way, it would be interesting to see “multiple color ghosts” in “an image […] taken by […] WorldView-1”. You know what I mean :)

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great images here and nice send off.. :-)

    … But I prefer to remember the Space Shuttle Endeavour as she was in flight. ūüėČ

    Like this :


    Plus this :

    (Don’t worry, your sound is {probably} working, be patient till 40 secs mark or so. The sound of Space Shuttle flying alone.)


    Oh & also this :


    The wonders we humans build and fly and safely land. 8)


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