A Navy aircraft images a space shuttle's thermal signature from almost 19 miles away
NASA has wanted to get a better look at its space shuttle landings ever since the tragic disintegration of space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Part of the space agency's solution: a modified Navy aircraft that can take 10,000 to 15,000 images of space shuttles traveling at a few miles per second.
Space shuttles have about 10,000 thermal tiles that protect their underbelly and wings during the white-hot descent from orbit. A protective layer of air molecules forms around the shuttle with temperatures up to 3,000 degrees F -- still mild compared to temperatures of more than 9,900 degrees F beyond the boundary layer.