When space shuttle Atlantis landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, it was the end of the final mission of NASA’s space shuttle program, and the end of an era. The image below might be the last picture taken of Atlantis in space, and thus the final picture of a space shuttle while in orbit.
It was 08:27:48 UTC – just 21 minutes before Atlantis’ final deorbit burn – that astrophotographer Thierry Legault captured what might be the last picture of Atlantis in space. It happened to be when Atlantis was crossing the face of the sun as seen from Earth – what scientists call a solar transit. Space shuttle Atlantis is circled in this image (and in the one below). The nearby sunspot is labeled as AR1254.
What’s below is a composite image, showing where Atlantis was on the full solar disk. Look for the tiny circle on the upper right of the disk, on the limb (edge) of the sun.
Bottom line: This image shows the space shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011, just 21 minutes before the shuttle’s final deorbit burn, which carried it back to Earth. It might be the final image of a space shuttle in orbit above Earth. Farewell, beautiful ships!
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.