Following the Trail

Following the Trail
  • Credit:

    Astronaut photograph ISS033-E-015373 was acquired on October 23, 2012, with a Nikon D3X digital camera, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 33 crew. It has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by Michael Carlowicz, Earth Observatory.

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.

Images & Animations


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  • Data Date:

    October 23, 2012
  • Visualization Date:

    October 25, 2012
  • Sensor(s):

    ISS - Digital Camera
NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration