CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) â€“ Early risers across the United States may have an unusual opportunity to see the space shuttle on Monday as it glides through the atmosphere, heading toward a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The shuttle Discovery is returning from a resupply and servicing mission at the International Space Station, one of NASA’s final shuttle flights before the fleet is retired later this year.
Its route back to Florida will take it over much of America’s heartland. Touchdown is targeted for 8:48 a.m. EDT (1248 GMT), weather permitting.
Fallout from the volcanic eruption in Iceland, which has disrupted international air travel, is not an issue for Discovery’s landing, said NASA flight director Bryan Lunney.
Space shuttles usually land in Florida after gliding on a southwest-to-northeast path over the Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico. That route saves fuel and avoids high-altitude ice clouds, called noctilucent clouds, that form during the summer between 50 degrees and 70 degrees north and south of the equator.
But ice clouds weren’t a concern at this time of year and returning to Florida via the northwest-to-southeast approach allowed NASA to squeeze in more hours for the crew to work at the station.
The supersonic glide through the atmosphere will overfly dozens of cities and towns, including Fort Peck Lake, Montana; Pierre, South Dakota; Sioux City, Iowa; St. Louis, Missouri; Tupelo, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jacksonville, Florida.
The shuttle is scheduled to enter Earth’s atmosphere over the central Pacific Ocean at 8:17 a.m. EDT and should be visible over Montana about a half hour before landing.
As the shuttle descends, observers in the West, where it will still be dark, should see a glowing plasma trail, like a meteorite. In the East, where it will be light, viewers may be able to see a glowing cloud.
Those who can’t see the shuttle may at least be able to hear it. The ship’s double sonic booms — shock waves from the nose and the tail of the shuttle — reach the ground about 90 seconds after the shuttle passes overhead.
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