It’s not often that you can see someone traveling to meet you from the moment that they leave their home. But that's exactly what the Expedition 33 crew did on October 23, 2012, when they captured this image of the Soyuz TMA-06M spacecraft riding into space to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).
The top photograph shows the layers of atmosphere along Earth’s limb and the exhaust trails from the Soyuz rocket that lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:51 p.m. local time on October 23. At the time, the ISS was passing over northeastern China, and the photographer was looking back to the west.
The plumes bent and curled in different directions, most likely due to winds blowing in different directions as the spacecraft made its way both horizontally across the sky and vertically through several atmospheric layers. The Soyuz passed through the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, and into the thermosphere. Rocket trails can last for minutes to hours and reside high enough in the atmosphere that they will often remain lit well after the Sun is below the horizon.
The lower photograph from the ground shows the TMA-06M just seconds after launch. It takes about two days for the Soyuz to catch up with the ISS, which orbits at roughly 27,000 kilometers (17,000 miles) per hour and 350–400 kilometers (200–250 miles) in altitude. The spacecraft carried three crew members—Soyuz commander Oleg Novitskiy, flight engineer Kevin Ford of NASA, and flight engineer Evgeny Tarelkin of Roscosmos—to join the three already living on the space station. It is the first spaceflight for Novitskiy and Tarelkin.