Spectacular Astronaut Photo Shows Final Space Shuttle's Fiery Trip Home

Atlantis' Re-entry Seen from the International Space Station
A member of the Expedition 28 crew aboard the International Space Station caught this spectacular photo of a lifetime, showing space shuttle Atlantis actually hurtling through the Earth's atmosphere on its way back to Kennedy Space Center, Florida, July 21, 2011. (Image credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center (via @NASA_Johnson))

An amazing new photo snapped by an astronaut in orbit shows the fiery trail left by the space shuttle Atlantis as it plunged through Earth's atmosphere today (July 21) on its final trip home.

The photo was taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station. It shows the bright plasma trail created by Atlantis as the shuttle zoomed through the atmosphere on the way to a picture-perfect landing in Florida.

Atlantis flew NASA's final mission of the 30-year space shuttle program, so the new photo is the last time an astronaut will ever see a shuttle plasma trail from orbit. [See the stunning photo of Atlantis' descent]

"This unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, was photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station," NASA officials explained in a photo description. "Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background."

Atlantis landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. EDT (0957 GMT) today to complete the 135th and final mission of NASA's shuttle program. The shuttle fleet is being retired to make way for a new program aimed at deep space exploration to an asteroid or Mars.

But before Atlantis touched down in Florida, it was flying in orbit at a speed of about 17,500 mph (28,000 kph). After firing its rocket engines to slow down, the shuttle plunged into Earth's atmosphere at hypersonic speeds, creating a plasma glow of super-heated air around its heat shield.

It's that glow that space station astronauts photographed in the amazing image. During Atlantis' landing, NASA officials said that American astronaut Mike Fossum on the station radioed Mission Control in Houston to say he could see the glow of Atlantis' re-entry from the orbiting lab's Cupola observation deck.

Atlantis' commander Chris Ferguson also radioed Mission Control during re-entry. He said he wished he could share the beauty of the plasma glow with everyone on the ground.

"We're elated to be back here in Florida," Ferguson said after landing.

During their 13-day flight, Ferguson and three crewmates delivered a huge haul of supplies to the International Space Station to help keep it stocked now that the shuttle fleet is no longer flying. Their mission was the 135th and final flight of NASA's shuttle program, which first launched into orbit in April 1981.

But now, Atlantis is in Florida to stay.

The shuttle will eventually be moved to the nearby Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to be placed on display as a museum showpiece.  NASA's other space shuttles —Discovery, Endeavour and the prototype Enterprise, which never flew in space — will also be sent to museums.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.