Space Shuttle

General Information

NASA's News Reference Manual provides detailed information on all aspects of the Shuttle Program.

NASA's SPACELINK carries information on the shuttle missions. You'll find their search tools very helpful.

Visit the VSOHP page on satellite encounters.

See drawings and photographs of shuttle water dumps. The latest revision has a photo of STS-103 observed over Texas.

STS-110 Mission Specific Links

  • Follow the mission status at Spaceflight Now.
  • NASA will post the landing ground tracks for the shuttle just prior to scheduled landing.
  • Here's a typical ground track of a shuttle launch to the ISS up the east coast of the US.
  • Shuttle mission press kits.

    Observing the Shuttle


    [STS-26 image]

    The space shuttle orbiters (there are three operational: Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour) are some 37 meters long with a wingspan of about 24 meters. Each is powered by it's own liquid hydrogen/oxygen engines (three) and two solid rocket boosters (SRBs) which separate to be recovered after just over two minutes of flight. The shuttle then continues under the power of it's main engines till about 8.5 minutes into the flight whereupon they are shut down and the external tank (ET) which provided the fuel throughout the ascent is jettisoned.

    The Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) two engines will fire after SRB separation during main engine ascent to provide a small amount of additional thrust to allow a heavier payload to be placed in orbit.

    Full details of the shuttle and it's systems can be found in NASA's shuttle News Reference Manual.

    The visibility depends upon the orbital inclination targeted for the mission. A launch to a 28.5 degree inclination orbit sees the shuttle climb to the east of the Kennedy Space Center, directly away from the US coast. This orbit allows heavy payloads to be lifted (up to around 29000 kg) taking advantage of the Earth's eastward rotation. For example the Hubble Space Telescope and Compton Gamma Ray observatories were deployed into such orbits. In this case, the shuttle can only be easily seen between latitude 38 N and 38 S. Far less common is a 39 degree inclination orbit (this provides the maximum de-orbit opportunities). Typically used for life sciences/microgravity related missions, in such an orbit the shuttle can be seen between latitudes 50 N and 50 S. For Space Station missions the shuttle is flown to orbits of 51.6 degrees of inclination. From here observers between latitudes 60 N and 60 S can obtain reasonable views. Normally the highest inclination orbit flown is one of 57 degrees in the case of missions with an Earth observation requirement. In this case the shuttle can be seen between 67 N and 67 S. The highest inclination orbit used was 62 deg, for the STS-36 Department of Defense mission. Launch azimuth constraint limitations do apply. Naturally the launch time and time of year will further dictate whether any good passes can be seen.

    Resources for predicting observations for the shuttle and other satellites can be found here.

    What to see


    Photo of STS-85 Gordon Garradd

    The ascent itself, if to a 51.6 or 57 degree orbit, can be seen from the US east coast during night launches, as the vehicles trajectory carries it parallel to the coast a few hundred kilometers off-shore. In clear weather the stack (shuttle, ET and SRB's) can be followed courtesy of the fiery output of the SRBs. Between 2 and 8 minutes into the launch, the main engines may be picked out with binoculars and observed pulsating. Following main engine cut off (MECO) and ET separation, reaction control system (RCS) burns can be seen building up the separation distance of the orbiter from the ET and correcting the flight attitude and direction. Some good tips for observing high inclination launches from the east coast of the US can be found in a previous posting on SeeSat-L regarding the STS-86 launch in 1997.

    The night launch of STS-97 was observable along the east coast of the US where there was no cloud cover as the main engines propelled the shuttle into low orbit. The Amateur Satellite Observers of Southeast Virginia have provided stills and movies of the ascent east of southeast Virginia.

    If the weather is clear it won't be missed by the observer due to its near orbital velocity at low altitude (50-75 km). It basically travels 90 degrees of azimuth in less than a minute. Depending upon the observers distance from the coastline, the Shuttle will be relatively low on the eastern horizon (10-20 degrees).

    After having separated shortly after the Main Engine Cut Off, the shuttle and ET continue to coast through the upper atmosphere in close proximity to each other in an 'orbit' whose perigee is dangerously low at only 75 kilometers.

    The shuttle achieves its target orbit with an orbital maneuvering system (OMS) burn over the Inidan Ocean about 45 minutes after launch whereas the ET crashes to a fiery end as it re-enters south of Hawaii. In the intervening time the pair can be seen half-way around the world. The two high inclination (51.6, 57 degree) scenarios see the shuttle and ET over European skies some 19 minutes after the launch. If it's not in earth's shadow, the orbiter appears as a bright white object around magnitude 0, the 47 by 8 meter ET within a degree or two exhibiting a definite red/orange tinge and slightly fainter around mag. +2, as both describe arcs across the sky from the west as they move to the east. Sometimes a cloud of fuzzy particles has been observed to accompany the pair when viewed with binoculars. Possibly these are ice particles. Here's a typical ground track on a launch to the ISS.

    During a mission the orbiter can be typically seen as a very bright object often climbing to magnitude -1 or -2 (thanks to the large flat wing area) with slow 'flashes' up to mag. -4 or -5, from either the payload bay door radiators or (also) various equipment in the payload bay, as the sun-shuttle-observer angle changes. During some missions various satellites can be seen when deployed from the orbiter, such as Hubble Space Telescope, during servicing missions, and smaller payloads like the SPARTAN satellite, which is deployed during some missions for a few days, to be retrieved later. It can be seen leading or following the shuttle by a few seconds as a fainter object around mag. +3. During STS-27, the Lacrosse 1 satellite could even be seen whilst in the payload bay due to its reddish coloration.

    In the past, during a Mir rendezvous, both objects were docked together and made an interesting and often bright sight (sometimes not as bright as expected due to shadowing caused by the docked orbiter on Mir or vice versa). In 11x50 binoculars (during a low elevation pass) it has been noted that a dipole is apparent with a bronze-yellow color (Mir) and a magnesium white 'pole' (the shuttle) can be distinguished. Other events to look out for are the various maneuvering burns carried out either for phasing as part of a rendezvous sequence, or to achieve mission objectives (such as a specific orbit for satellite deployment or to arrive over a target area for Earth observation purposes). Water dumps can also be seen. As waste water is vented to the vacuum of space it can create the impression of a comet-like cloud trailing from the orbiter.


    Photo of STS-103's re-entry over southern Texas on Dec 27, 1999 near Houston at dusk Paul Maley

    Finally as the mission ends the OMS engines are fired over the Pacific ocean and the vehicle re-enters the atmosphere. A landing at the Kennedy Space Center sees the orbiter blaze a trail of hot, ionized gas over the south-western US, easily visible on a clear night. A landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California sees re-entry near the Hawaiian island chain.

    Links: to the VSO Home Page, observing guide, observing Mir, International Space Station program, and satellite predictions.