I’ve been stuck in some epic traffic jams, but I think this one wins:
Those are the Space Shuttle orbiters Endeavour and Atlantis [click to embiggen] at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavour has just finished being processed for travel, and will soon be on its way to California to eventually go to the California Science Center in LA. Atlantis is staying at Kennedy Space Center itself at the Visitor’s Center.
Funny – a year ago I posted a similar picture Endeavour and Discovery, saying it was the last time we’d see a shot like that. I guess I was wrong.
Either way, there won’t be too many more like this… but soon we’ll be launching humans back into space once again. My hope is that when we do it’ll be easier, less expensive, more reliable, and the beginning of not just tentative toes-in-the-water, but plunging full into the ocean of space.
Image credit: NASA
The Space Shuttle project may be over, but we can still get some pretty cool stuff from it. The NASA Goddard Space Light Center put out a time lapse video of the Orbiter Discovery orbiting the Earth while docked to the International Space Station, and like all time lapse animations, it’s enthralling:
[Make sure to click the HD button on the lower right.]
That last shot of the Sun rising on an Orbiter is actually of Atlantis, and was taken on July 19, 2011, not long before the Orbiter undocked from the space station and returned to Earth one last time.
News recently broke that the private company SpaceX is planning on sending its new Dragon capsule to the ISS as early as November of this year. The original plan was for a flyby in a test mission, but now they want to combine the second and third tests and perform an actual docking maneuver. Orbital Sciences is planning to unveil their own capsule next year. So I wonder: what sort of images from the ISS will we be seeing next?
- Time lapsed: the Moon plunges into shadow
- Time lapse video: from North Carolina to the galactic center
- Gorgeous Milky Way Time Lapse
- Incredibly, impossibly beautiful time lapse video
- Time lapse: Journey through canyons
I’ve mentioned in the past that the International Space Station is easily visible to the unaided eye when it passes through the sky. That means it’s not hard to get pictures of it. Unless you have pretty fancy equipment you’ll only see it as a bright dot of light, but that’s still pretty cool, and worth a try.
This shot of the ISS is from a webcam at the Tellus Museum of Science in Georgia, which is part of the All Sky Fireball Network. That’s a collection of four cameras in the US southeast looking for bright meteors; the idea being that if one is caught by more than one camera the path can be calculated in three dimensions, and a location of any potential meteorite found.
The webcam shot of the ISS was happenstance, but inevitable; when you have a camera that looks up all the time it’ll get a shot of the space station eventually! But you don’t have to guess; go Heavens Above, enter your latitude and longitude (which you can get from Google Earth) and it will tell you just when interesting things will pass overhead.
Well, today is certainly shaping up to be "jaw-dropping pictures of Atlantis day"! How so? Well, I already posted the stunning image of the Orbiter’s descent as seen from space, and just the other day I mentioned how I was hoping Nathanial Burton-Bradford would make more 3D images… so guess what? Get out your red/cyan glasses: here’s the plasma-lit descent of Atlantis as seen from space in 3D!
Wow! The ISS astronauts took several pictures of the Orbiter as it descended. Nathanial took two of them from NASA’s spaceflight gallery and combined them to make this anaglyph. If you click between the two original shots (here and here) you can see they were taken a few seconds apart; the motion of the stars, the Earth, and the plasma plume change a little bit (click between them rapidly and you’ll actually get a feel of the motion. Weird).
The other pictures at the NASA page are amazing as well. Funny, when I first heard of the plasma picture I poked around NASA’s site and couldn’t find any other images, but clearly I either missed them or they weren’t up yet. I’m glad Nathanial dug deeper! In his shot, you really get a sense of how far away the Orbiter was from the ISS. In fact, there is a layered feel to the whole scene, with the stars far away, the ISS in the foreground, and the Earth itself stretched out from below you to the horizon.
If you don’t have red/cyan glasses, this one shot makes it worth the effort. It’s truly amazing. More than just a gimmick, a picture like this really gives you a visceral sense of what you’re seeing. Truly wonderful.
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:
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:
It’s a little early for me to start thinking about my annual Top Ten Astronomy Pictures, but I have a feeling this one will make the cut: the actual glowing trail of plasma left in the wake of Atlantis as it entered Earth’s atmosphere, as seen from space by astronauts aboard the space station!
Amazing! Oh yes, you want to click to embiggen.
Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station on July 19, and two days later the ISS was in position to coincidentally catch a view of the Orbiter as it made its final descent. This shot shows the plume of ionized gas left behind as Atlantis descended, as well as clouds, parts of the ISS itself, and atmospheric airglow: the faint glow of molecules and atoms high in the atmosphere as they slowly recombine with electrons and emit light.
This shot is simply spectacular. Since the stars aren’t trailed, this must be a fairly short exposure, not more than a few seconds. The trail you’re seeing is therefore not actually the Orbiter streaking across the Earth! The plasma trail behind it fades with time, so the trail is brightest near the Orbiter’s position and fainter as you backtrack along its path. Think of it as an afterglow of the passing of Atlantis.
Why does this happen? The air gets heated by the Orbiter’s ramming the atmosphere at 20+ times the speed of sound. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not friction that heats the air, but compression. When you compress a gas it heats up (like when a bicycle pump gets hot when you use it a lot), and the Orbiter is screaming through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. That compresses the air a lot. A shock wave forms in front of the Orbiter, and the air begins to glow as it gets heated up to temperatures as high as 1260° C (2300° F).
That’s what you’re seeing above: the shocked, rammed, and glowing air as Atlantis pounded through it at several kilometers per second. And it did this many, many times over its life… until this one final time, caught on camera by astronauts high above the Earth.
At 09:57:54 GMT today, July 21st, 2011, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis rolled to a safe stop on Runway 15 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, marking the end of last Shuttle flight.
It flew 33 missions since its first launch in 1985, spending over 300 days in space and making nearly 5000 orbits of the Earth. It visited Mir, the ISS, and even Hubble.
With this landing, the Era of the Shuttle is over. But our presence in space is not. NASA still has working rockets that can carry machines into space, and is working on developing a new rocket system. Private companies are gathering the capability to go to space and to low-Earth orbit. Other countries still have the ability to take humans into space as well. As Americans we pride ourselves on our history of exploration and being the first. For now, that pride may have to wait.
But I’ll note that after Apollo 17, the last Moon landing, it was 8 years before the first Shuttle launch. I’m hoping the current gap that began this morning will last much less than that. I wish there were no gap at all, but here we are. The status of manned spaceflight could be a lot better right now, but things could also be worse.
And don’t forget that the House of Representatives is planning on gutting NASA, canceling the James Webb Space Telescope, and more. If the last flight of the Shuttle makes you sad, I suggest you channel that energy and use it to contact your Representative and Senator.
The Shuttle may now be Earthbound, but that is no reason for us to be.
Tomorrow morning, July 21, at 5:56 a.m. EDT (09:56 GMT), the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis is scheduled to set wheels down on Earth one last time. When it launched, though, pictures were taken as the rocket rolled that allowed Nathaniel Burton-Bradford to create a 3D red/cyan anaglyph:
[Click to enlaunchenate.]
I posted another 3D image he made of Atlantis, too, and he has one of the ISS he just made as well. If you don’t have red/cyan glasses, you can search for ‘em online. They’re pretty cheap, and I do sometimes link to pictures like this… like in Related Posts below. It’s totally worth a buck, just for that moment of "wow".
Credit: NASA, Nathanial Burton Bradford
On July 16, an astronaut on the International Space Station captured this eerie and cool picture of Atlantis and the ISS with the aurora australis in the background:
[Click to embiggen.]
You can see Atlantis on the right and one of the station’s solar panels on the left. In the middle is the Orbiter’s robot arm hanging down (as much as "down" makes any sense in space). That light near the top of the arm is not a star but an actual light, to help illuminate shadowed areas being worked on.
The aurora australis, or southern lights, are the counterpart to the aurora borealis (northern lights). The actual phenomenon is quite complicated, but in essence subatomic particles from the Sun are captured by the Earth’s magnetic field. They’re channeled down to the magnetic poles, which are very near the Earth’s physical poles. The particles slam into the atmosphere,
stripping electrons off of air molecules. When the electrons recombine with the molecules, they give off light exciting the electrons in atoms high in the air, and when the electrons give up that energy the atoms glow. The color depends on the atom or molecule involved; oxygen emits strongly in the green, while nitrogen is preferentially red. In reality most substances emit at several different colors, but the strengths change; oxygen emits in the red as well but much more weakly than green. When you see red in an aurora, it’s usually mostly nitrogen you’re seeing.
That thin brownish arc is real too! That’s a layer of aerosol haze, particles suspended high in the atmosphere. When we look up from the ground we see right through it, but seen from nearly edge-on it becomes visible. You can spot it in a lot of photos of the Earth’s limb taken at night from space.
I’ll admit, when I first saw this picture it momentarily threw me. How could the clouds be so bright (like it’s daytime) and yet the aurora be visible? Then I remembered that the Moon was just past full on July 16, when this picture was taken. Even though this is a night scene, the Moon was bright enough to light up the clouds. The exposure time was several seconds (you can see the stars are slightly trailed as the Orbiter moves around the Earth), plenty of time for the Moon to illuminate the clouds. It also lit up the cowling over the Orbiter’s engines as well.
Today, Monday, July 17, the astronauts from Atlantis moved from the ISS back to the Orbiter and closed the hatches. Tonight at 02:28 Eastern (US) time (06:28 GMT), Atlantis is scheduled to undock from the station, and on July 21st it will return to Earth for the final time, marking the end of the Shuttle era for NASA.