I have a night-landing photo of the Shuttle showing lights (I assume some type of glow-plug to burn off extraneous fuel). My understanding is that only the OMS engines burn to begin reentry. Can anyone confirm what it is that I'm seeing? Shuttle night landing, with main engines interior in view.

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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-eye_effect ;-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ Already asked on Physics.SE. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ @dotancohen Technically I think that question is off topic on Physics, so I wouldn't suggest anything like, say, closing it here because it was already asked there (if people were inclined to do that). We may just close it on Physics. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ: I believe that Space.SE did not exist at the time. 100% agreed that today such a question is OT on Physics.SE. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 14:38

1 Answer 1


It's simply the spotlights illuminating the ship, and shining up the bore of the engines. Notice the shadows of the vertical stabilizer from the same source.

When the shuttle landing direction is determined, URS Corp. air traffic controllers in the runway control tower will communicate with Bordeaux and his team on the ground. Then two of the operators will light up eight Xenon lights, four on each side of one end of the runway, to illuminate the touchdown and rollout area from behind the shuttle.

(emphasis mine)

You can see that the gaps between the inboard and outboard elevons, and the square element at the base of the vertical stabilizer, are also brightly illuminated by the lights.

The SSMEs were not ignited in any way for entry, and any excessive propellant was dumped long before, shortly after Main Engine Cutoff (on launch day). In fact, during entry, the main propulsion system propellant lines are completely inerted and pressurized with helium. (source, p. 139)

You can read about the runway lights here (which is the source of the quote and the image).

And here's a picture looking the other way, showing the lights.

enter image description here

Additionally, here's a picture I took of the inside of an SSME in the engine shop at KSC on May 7, 2008. One can see the same silvery disc of the injector surrounded by the coppery combustion chamber in the picture in the question. (The white rectangles are paper labels placed by the technicians working on the engine.)

enter image description here

Source: personal photo

  • $\begingroup$ nasa.gov/returntoflight/system/system_SSME.html it can look similarly even without the directed spotlighting, there's a definite reddish hue there. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 1:10
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh thanks for that comment, I edited in a picture I took of the innards of an SSME in response. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 1:26
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    $\begingroup$ oh that is really excellent! picture >> thousand words. It must have been quite a lot of fun to stare down the throat of this guy! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 1:38

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