Russia brings their spacecraft home a bit differently from what NASA astronauts are accustomed to. Instead of splashing down in the ocean, or landing like a plane on a runway, Soyuz craft parachute onto land. On November 19th, NASA Commander Sunita Williams and JAXA engineer Akihiko Hoshide found out what that was like as they returned from the International Space Station on a Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft with Russian Yuri Malenchenko. This photograph shows the craft glowing brightly as it hits the atmosphere.
Since the spacecraft was moving significantly faster than you can pump a pump, the air got compressed savagely and heated up so much that it glowed. A lot of that heat was transferred to the spacecraft, which had a special surface to withstand it. The material ablated off, trailing bits and blobs of glowing matter as the spacecraft slowed from orbital speeds of several thousand kilometers per hour down to just a few hundred. At that point, parachutes were deployed, and the craft fell the rest of the way to ground, where it impacted more-or-less gently.
And you thought a roller coaster was an exciting ride. Read more about the trip at Bad Astronomy. Link
(Image credit: NASA)