Sunset Shuttle Plume

March 09, 2001


Provided by: Patrick McCracken, NASA Headquarters
Summary authors & editors: Earth Observatory; Jim Foster

The amazing photograph above was taken just after lift off of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-98) on February 7, 2001. It was on its way to the space station (taking the crew that yesterday's successful Discovery launch will soon return). To capture this picture, a Kodak digital camera was used with a 2X telephoto lens. The key thing that makes this picture so dramatic is that it was taken just after sunset. The upper portion of the plume is still illuminated by the Sun (off the left side of the picture), but the lower part is in the Earth's shadow. At the lower right, the bright spot is the rising full moon, and the bluish streak emanating from the middle of the plume toward the moon results from a shadowing phenomena. Particles in the air scatter and reflect the sunlight, except where hindered by the dense smoke plume - casting a shadow. The shadow appears to be going to the moon since when the moon is full, it's opposite the Sun from our perspective. The Sun, Earth and moon are all in alignment, and thus any shadow produced by the Sun would point toward the moon.

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