Different levels of blurring of this Space Shuttle image were applied to investigate at which level of sharpness certain details remain visible
The Space Shuttle Orbiter was an amazing spacecraft as it looked actually like an aircraft. Only a small number of people have been aware of the visibility of the Space Shuttle in the night sky and only a limited group of astronomers have ever observed it consciously. For the naked eye, the Shuttle was sometimes visible as a bright satellite, comparable to a less favorable and dimmer pass of the ISS. In some occasions it created a remarkable show when it flew in tandem with the ISS just before or just after a docking. The Shuttle could be easily recognized as the dimmer component of the pair. In less favorable passes, and when it was flying solo, the Shuttle sometimes looked naked eye like an average satellite. Only a minimal number of detailed photographs of the Space Shuttle have been taken from the ground until it retired in 2011. The main reason for that is the limited group of astrophotographers that is involved in high resolution imaging of artificial satellites. A secondary reason is that telescopic spacecraft imaging by amateurs was almost not possible until the digital photography era and this era only partially overlaps with the Space Shuttle era.
I observed the Space Shuttle since I started doing spacecraft imaging around 2006. At that time, the International Space Station was still under construction although the majority of the elements was already added. A few times a year there was a Shuttle launch to the ISS with often a new module or another set of solar panels for the ISS in its payload bay. The payload bay doors were opened shortly after launch to help cool the Shuttle. It was orbiting with the open payload bay pointed to Earth so there was a possibility to look straight inside it and see a sign of the payload. This way I photographed several times one of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLM) carried in the Shuttle. Although I observed several Shuttle passes througout the years, just a few of them were favorable enough to obtain detailed photographs. Lower passes in the sky, further away from the observer often resulted in images were even the attitude of the spacecraft hardly was identifiable, a general problem with imagery of satellites. The cause is not only poor resolution but also difficult illumination. Just shortly before the last Space Shuttle flights, finally some excellent conditions popped up that enabled some stunning photography from Earth. Suddenly, the telescopic images showed a detailed Orbiter with a lot of recognizable details.
Color of NASA Logo, photographed from the Ground
With moderate backyard telescopes it was possible to resolve details like the cockpit, the payload bay (doors), the payload and even smaller exotic details. In the spring of 2010 there was an eruption of Icelands Eyjafjallajökull volcano resulting in a relatively dusty sky over Europe. Due to the volcanic ash, air traffic over Europe was shut down. It's possible that this had a good impact on air steadiness (seeing) whether or not in combination with the depleted dust. Some excellent images were taken of the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-131 when it was just flying home from the ISS at that moment. An impressive detail that popped up in the best images is the NASA logo on the left wing and a sign of its color. The contrast of the relatively small logo seen over the distance of more then 350 kilometers and through the Earth atmosphere is very low and the color intensity even lower, but even then its typical blue color shows up in color images in the best frames. The photo below is taken on April 19, 2010 and shows the Discovery STS-131. It is the only known photo taken from the ground that shows the color of the NASA logo. The used equipment is a 10 inch backyard telescope with attached an relatively ordinary JVC camcorder. If we carefully analyse the image, it becomes clear that although there is a wide range of colors visible in the color intensified image, including blue and green, the typical blue color of the logo is only present at the right place.
Observing a docked Space Shuttle
When the Shuttle was docked to the ISS its attitude was tail pointed to Earth, nose pointed to space. This vertical position made it difficult to obtain good images of the docked Shuttle for several reasons. A problem was the attitude of the Shuttle in combination with the distance. Due to the nose-up docked position, there was only a visible view on the tail and the engines when the station was orbiting overhead at the closest approach. Seeing other elements of the docked Shuttle was only well possibe at a longer range when the observing angle was larger. The related problem of this situation is that, due to the distance, this was resulting in a lower image resolution. This observing condition occured in the approach-phase of the ISS/Shuttle combination. The key was to find a compromise between images that were taken at a longer range and at a shorter range, so that the image resolution was just satisfying and the observing angle was also just satisfying. I concluded that real good high resolution imaging of the Space Shuttle with backyard equipment was only possible when the Shuttle was flying solo and its plane was less or more aligned to the Earth surface. (see paragraph 'Color of NASA Logo photographed from the Ground').
Docked Shuttles through the Years
I started doing ISS - and Shuttle imaging around 2006 / 2007 and thanks to good conditions I captured docked images of the Atlantis on STS-117 mission in june 2007 and the Endeavour on STS-118 mission in August 2007. For the time, these were very good results, see below. Note in the animation that after the culmination point in the pass we look against the underside of the Space Shuttle and its heatshield becomes visible as a bright triangular element.
Early images of the docked Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-118 taken on August 13, 2007. The gif shows a large part of the pass
Images of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-122 mission, docked to the ISS taken on February 10, 2008. The Shuttle is seen from the back and the tail is illuminated
This was a very common view when the ISS with docked Shuttle passed high over, as the Shuttle was docked with its nose up and tail pointed to the Earth
The docked Space Shuttle Discovery is well recognizable as the triangular element in this image taken on April 17, 2010
One of my best images of a docked Shuttle taken on March 20, 2009 showing the Discovery on STS-119 mission docked to the ISS. Taken in a situation with best compromise concerning range and observing angle. We recognize wings, open payload bay doors, empty payload bay with some structure and engines. We also can see some ISS modules
Overview image of the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-119 docked to the ISS (left), shown in negative and compared to a model simulation at the right. The S6 solar panels were the last of the 4 big solar panels of the ISS and were added to the station during this mission. This ground-based image was acually the first image that showed the new panels after assembly
Raw video of the docked Discovery on mission STS-133 taken March 4, 2011. The back of the orbiter is visible below the station
Early color video capture of ISS with the docked Discovery on June 3, 2008
The changing observing angle provides a good plastic view of the Shuttle
Space Shuttle Waste Water Dumps
Waste water dumps were in the Space Shuttle era an impressive phenomenon to observe without the use of a telescope. Usually the water dumps were performed after the Shuttle undocked from the International Space Station. During my observational period I witnessed 2 Space Shuttle water dumps, one on February 20, 2010 from the Endeavour STS-130 and the other one on March 11, 2011 from the Discovery. The second one occured 1 day before the landing and appeared when the Shuttle was passing low in the Southwest and in twilight. I oberved this water dump visually only for a very short time with 7x50 binoculars as I wanted to switch to the camcorder to take images. I remember the phenomenon as an impressive comet-like appearance. These waste water dumps were captured with a videocamera with normal zoomlens, without the use of a telescope. Therefore, the Shuttle (and ISS in the Endeavour water dump) is visible in the images as an unstructured spot and is overexposed because the faint water tail required longer exposures. Both images are taken with a Sony TRV-740 videocamera without the use of a telescope. Several frames are stacked to improve signal-to-noise ratio of the video frames. The second image clearly shows some differences in the concentration of the water tail.
Water dump from the Endeavour photographed on Water dump from the Discovery STS-133,
Feb, 20, 2010. The ISS was still in the vicinity. captured on March 11, 2011 on its last flight
Post Launch Observations from Europe
For Western European observers there were some interesting occasions to see the remarkably colored jettisoned External Tank (ET) flying in tandem with the Shuttle in the first orbit over the Atlantic Ocean and Europe. During my observational time I succeeded once in this, although only visually. On July 15, 2009, the Space Shuttle Endeavour took off at 22:03 UTC. At that time there was still twilight at my location in the Netherlands. 20 minutes later, the Earth shadow was already low in the West but I spotted the Shuttle and the External Tank as 2 objects with different brightness in a 6x30 finderscope.The difficulty, I thought, were aircraft at a long range that were frequently present in the region in the sky were the Space Shuttle would appear. This particular sky region is located in a busy air traffic route to the UK and the US and at the long range, the airplane lights are compressed together while moving with a very low angular speed.
But to my surprise, the Shuttle and the External Tank distinguished themselves clearly from the airplane lights. The 2 in tandem flying objects were steady lights - different then aircraft - and the faintest component of the 2 entered the Earth shadow a few seconds earlier then the other one. This was the External Tank flying already at a significantly lower altitude. The low height in the sky did not allow taking any high resolution images, so this is a pure visual observation. At a higher elevation in the sky, the orange color of the ET probably would have been visible. Ground-based images of the External tank in its (short) orbit, particularly telescopic, are very rare.