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.
When I was four, humans landed on the Moon. I grew up with the Saturn V. It was my rocket.
But folks younger than me, people around 35 and younger, they’ve known the Space Shuttle as their rocket their whole lives. This video is a tribute to all of them.
Tip of the heat shield tile to my pal Gia.
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
This is pretty amazing: on Sunday, July 17, amateur astronomer Scott Ferguson was able to get video of the Orbiter Atlantis docked to the International Space Station when they passed overhead in broad daylight!
How cool is that?
This looks legit to me. This video was taken about 1.25 hours after the Sun rose! Atlantis is the glowing white object at the top of the ISS. You can clearly see the solar panels on the station, and get a hint of other structures too. The two dark donuts are dust motes on the camera detector; they are out of focus and optical effects make them look like rings — you see these a lot in astrophotography, but they’re generally not noticed because the background is dark. In this case, the morning sky makes them more obvious.
Ferguson used a 20 cm (8 inch) telescope and a video camera optimized for astrophotography. He also used software that predicted the position and path of the two orbiting spacecraft; though the ISS can get about as bright as Venus, it’s very hard to see during the day, so having a solid prediction was critical. He used guiding software which he had to assist by hand, which is remarkable. As he told me, he was hoping to get a night-time pass, but there weren’t any at his location. Rather than give up, he saw an early morning pass, so gave it a shot… and wound up with this astonishing footage.
It’s funny to think of how much detail you can see, but when it passes overhead the ISS is only 350 km (210 miles) or so above you (and even when it’s halfway up the sky it’s only about 150 km farther away). And since it’s 100 meters across, it actually can be easily resolved by binoculars! You won’t see much, but it will clearly be an extended object, and not just a dot. Through a telescope, well, you can see that for yourself.
This is quite an accomplishment, and I’m glad someone was able to do it in the final days of the Orbiter’s mission. I was actually hoping we’d see something spectacular from this last hurrah, and yeah, I think this qualifies.
This picture of Atlantis approaching the International Space Station made me laugh:
That is all.
[UPDATE: OK, maybe that isn’t all. A lot of people don’t get why this picture made me laugh; I thought it looked funny because it overflows the frame and is upside-down compared to how we usually see it. It’s cute. As for the title, how do bats sleep?]
Nathanial Burton Bradford takes images from NASA and other science sources and creates 3D red/blue anaglyphs from them. If you have a pair of those glasses, then feast your eyes on this tremendous one he made of Atlantis from yesterday’s 360° pitch maneuver:
Cooool. What really makes this one is the Vertical Stabilizer (the tail fin, if you like) popping out right at you. Nathanial’s also done one of the launch itself. He says he’s looking for more, so I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. Check back on his Flickr pages to see for yourself.
Credit: NASA, Nathanial Burton Bradford
On Friday, the Space Shuttle Atlantis flew into space for the last time. After a dramatic countdown — there was a hold at 31 seconds before launch while a glitch was run down — it leapt into the sky, and into orbit.
It takes a while to catch up with the space station and match orbits, and even when it does there are some chores to perform. After the loss of Columbia in 2003, the Orbiters need to be checked to make sure the heat-retaining tiles are intact; it was damage to the wing that let super-heated plasma into Columbia when it was returning to Earth.
The Orbiters do a slow 360° flip, pitching all the way around, so cameras and astronauts on the station can take a looksee. NASA just released video of Atlantis’s last pirouette yesterday, July 10. I took the video and sped it up by a factor of four so you can see it clearly:
Pretty cool, huh? [Make sure to set the resolution to 720 or 1080p to get the full effect!] You can see the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, named Raffaello, in the payload bay; it’s filled with supplies and spare parts for the station.
You can watch the original version of the video on NASA’s site.
Did you know NASA collects 4 terabytes of data each day? And that a lot of this data is available to the public?
My friend Chris Pirillo interviewed Nick Skytland from NASA’s Open Government Initiative, and they talk about what NASA does beyond launching rockets:
Pretty cool. NASA does a lot of stuff… so of course the House of Representatives is talking about massively cutting it back. Incidentally, since writing that post, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is gathering her forces to block canceling the James Webb Space Telescope program. I sent her a note thanking her, and hopefully the Senate can reign in the House’s political bluster.
And speaking of all this, with the successful launch of Atlantis, if you have Google Earth you can track the location of the Orbiter! Pretty cool. Also, as usual, Heavens-Above.com will allow you to predict the times when Atlantis and the Space Station are visible from your location.