So I was watching this video of a talk given by the creators of the game Kerbal Space Program. The video is more or less about game development, but this part (link should go right to the moment but just in case the timestamp is 25:14) hit me like a ton of bricks.

"No one really knows what re-entry effects look like. There's a lot of images on the internet if you just look for it, but you can see that of all of these they're all artists renderings. You can't find like a really nice picture of what the re-entry effect actually looks like."

This video was posted to youtube in 2013, of a talk recorded earlier than that, about a game development process that happened even before then. But I started searching online and sure enough, I can only seem to find artists' renders of re-entry effects. Some of them are so well done that they look photo-realistic, but they're still renders.

Plasma wind tunnels have been built, and I can find video demonstrations of these and the effect looks more or less like our popular conception, but I'm having trouble finding technical specifications that assert that the simulated conditions would look the same.

I know that gas composition can have significant impact on plasma appearance so for all I can confirm, these plasma wind tunnels are only worried about re-creating the pressure and temperature effects as easily as possible but the actual upper atmosphere would look different.

To that end, I found this other video, also from a ESA plasma wind tunnel experiment, and the colors look A.) quite varied! and B.) quite different from the popular conception - lots of greens and purples.

My question is two-fold:

  1. Is this still accurate, or have we ever actually captured photographic evidence of what re-entry effects look like for real spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere?
  2. If we haven't (understandable! It's not like we're re-entering multiple spacecraft in formation) then how certain are we that the popular conception of a fiery orange plasma is what re-entry would look like to the human eye?

3 Answers 3


Do we actually know what re-entry looks like?


There are thousands of photographs and videos taken of entry from inside and outside of crewed spacecraft. And, hundreds of human beings have seen it with their own eyes.

Here's a video from Apollo 11

Here's one from STS-107

Here's an external photo of a shuttle entry (source: NASA)

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Internal photo of a shuttle entry (source: NASA)

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Orion test (source: NASA)

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Here's a decent external video. This is a destructive entry - the tank breaks up at ~ 1:05 in the video. It's of the STS-029 external tank entry. Source: NASA

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    $\begingroup$ And for a destructive reentry, there's a distant shot from the ISS of a Soyuz booster reentering here: youtu.be/B1R3dTdcpSU?t=45 $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2022 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ While these are photos of reentry, none are both external and high quality. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Oct 25, 2022 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Topcode did the question specify that? Please quote that part. $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2022 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble not directly, but it’s very clearly implied. The noted video game has options to view in a third person (external) view, even during reentry. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Oct 25, 2022 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble I did mean to imply it, yes, though this answer was still extremely good. I think this footage more or less satisfactorily answers both of my actual questions I outlined. The answer to the first one is "no" we don't have great external footage in good resolution, but to the second one from the internal footage we do have we can feel confident that the renderings and such are accurate. Thank you! $\endgroup$
    – Mia
    Oct 25, 2022 at 18:57

As of 2024, we now have close-up external footage from SpaceX Starship, eg this video.

Starship reentry plasma

  • $\begingroup$ @user721108 Can you elaborate? (I think I agree that different reentry profiles and spacecraft shapes might look different, but it seems like a notable enough addition to the question.) $\endgroup$
    – Kaia
    Mar 15 at 19:19

We definitely know what re-entry looks like. Progress burn-up

this is only an animation because I couldn't find one about a real Soyuz.

I hope these are helpful. Here's one more, Crew Dragon

We know what re-entry looks like because we have all these videos and photos of it. Also, you can see the flames when you look out the window of the spacecraft (assuming you're in a spacecraft with windows, which would be most if not all crewed spacecraft, because astronauts have to see where they're going to dock with something). If you looked outside during reentry, this is what you'd see Ah yes, and I also saw this in my yard a few nights ago spacex reentry

  • $\begingroup$ ” spacecraft with windows, which would be most if not all crewed spacecraft, because astronauts have to see where they're going to dock with something” - Wouldn’t a windowless spacecraft be safer/cheaper/sturdier though? And isn’t docking nowadays all done automatically by computer (with cameras, lidar, etc)? $\endgroup$
    – Dai
    Oct 27, 2022 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Dai computers fail sometimes. Most spacecraft still have windows in case the computers stop working and manual docking must be done. Also, it's really cool to look out the window and see space. Other than that, you're right. If there are other reasons why spacecraft have windows I'd like to hear them. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2022 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @ColonelCornieliusCornwall space.stackexchange.com/q/18889/6944 $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2022 at 20:04

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