Phil Plait posted a photo gallery of his favorite pictures from space of 2011. If you missed it go look at them. It starts with Trey Ratcliff's single exposure handheld High Dynamic Range photo of Endeavour going into the clouds. That made me cry. So many people missed that launch that wanted to see it, like President Obama. But Trey stuck it out and got that picture in less than ideal conditions. But he had alternative equipment and got a good shot that caught the eye of a lot of people. I love that the photos from the space station shot by actual people are mixed up with automated photos taken from satellites.
The US has been doing that since before they had a good way to convert the image into electrical signals, modulate radio waves with the data, and transmit them back to the ground. The original camera based satellites launched in 1960. Code named Corona they were primarily for spying on the Soviet Union. They used film that they would drop back to earth. The satellites flew specific missions with a limited supply of film. They only stayed up for a few hours or a few days. They dropped capsules containing the film. As it parachuted down the capsule was captured by prop planes. It sounds a little bit like a Soyuz landing, only they don't get caught by a slow plane before they hit the ground. But while satellite technology has leapt forward, Soyuz is still pretty much the same thing as in the 1960s.
Other satellites programs attempted to develop the film in space, take TV pictures of them, then beam those back to earth. TV wasn't nearly high enough resolution then, any more than it is now, so of course that was pretty much a waste of effort. But I suppose trying it motivated them to get to where they are now — charge coupled devices capturing very high resolution images that can be transmitted quickly after they're captured.
When I think back over the year to the images that most impressed me I think it was video of things I wasn't expecting. The Aquarius and Curiosity launches that had video of spacecraft separation. I was NOT expecting that! That's amazing to me! The quality is not that great, but it's not really about the image this time as what it's showing. It's just so cool that they put that camera there and were able to get an antenna aimed right to be able to lock onto the radio signal back here on earth! Bet they wish they'd put a camera like that on Phobos-Grunt. Based on the number of views of these videos it's clear that I am a very rare bird to think it's interesting. Maybe it's a cop-out to pick these unpopular videos as my favorites because it would be too hard to choose between the really astonishingly good photos I've seen this year. Let's say they aren't the best artistically, they are just the most hopeful to me as a person who thinks like an engineer.
For artistry I pick the solid rocket booster footage from the shuttle launches. Despite no editing and being very long it is beautiful to me. I'd like a good editor to make about a 5 minute mix down of this footage. My favorite part is the audio. Because the microphone is attached to the structure that is vibrating with the pops and creaks of expansion and contraction you can hear it plainly even in thin to no atmosphere. It's all just surreal and beautiful to me. I salute the engineers and technicians and invisible people who mounted those cameras, got them back when the rockets were recovered, downloaded and compiled this video and uploaded it for my enjoyment. Unlike with the Trey Ratcliff photo there is no way to know who they are and that just makes it extra poignant to me. I like to think about things like the person who packed those parachutes in the SRBs and how he made those lines get cut at just the right time. That's just one guy. He did that. I salute you, parachute rigger. Nice work. It's beautiful and I'm glad somebody got pictures of it.