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Space station's changing image

Sometimes finding a current picture of the International Space Station can be a problem. Plenty of images have been shot, the best ones by astronauts aboard one of NASA's space shuttles, just before docking or just after undocking.

The problem is that almost every time a shuttle crew visits the station, they tote along a new module, or a new set of solar panels, or radiators, or some other gadget or gizmo that changes the looks of the place. Or, spacewalking crews move stuff around. They'll detach solar panels from one spot, and move it to another spot as the framework to hold them grows.

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Anyway, here (above) is an image just released showing the station as it looked earlier this month as the shuttle Discovery backed away after delivering the Japanese Kibo science module. It's the latest, best portrait of the station as it currently exists. Or, at least as it looked while the Russian cargo transport Progress (left) was attached. It's the section at the center of the image with the X-shaped solar panels. If it's not gone already, it will be before long. The changes in the station over the years, and consequently its brightness when observed from the ground, have changed dramatically. Here, for example, is how it looked in 2006.

And here is how it looked in 2002. And finally here is how it looked in 2000 when it consisted of two Russian segments and one NASA segment called Unity.

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In two more years NASA is scheduled to shut down its shuttle program. After that, we'll have to wait for the debut of the Ares program before we'll have the capability in the U.S. of launching manned vehicles to the ISS or anywhere else. We'll be relying on the Russians to put astronauts aboard the ISS.

Mostly the Ares series is being built to serve NASA's manned lunar landing hardware program, called Constellation, which will add the manned Orion capsules to the Ares boosters.

The Ares V is expected to be capable of putting 286,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, comparable to the old Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the moon in the late '60s and early '70s. The space shuttle's lift capacity is about 50,000 pounds.

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