Update after we confirmed the image below shows the Soyuz spacecraft returning to Earth Captain Wijker sent us this message:

Just reflecting on what I saw; watched like millions of others many times animated footage of space capsules returning to earth and this is almost routine and you can take this in without too much emotion. Now having seen this fire ball shooting across the sky knowing there are actually 3 people inside that fire ball that are back safe on earth 20 minutes later is breathtaking.

Very privileged that I was lucky enough to see this.

British Airways pilot Captain Simon Wijker caught this image of the Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft, shortly before it landed in Kazakhstan. Inside the spacecraft were ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, NASA’s Karen Nyberg, Russian commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and the Olympic torch.

Soyuz TMA-09M reentry

Credit: Simon Wijker

Captain Wijker contacted ESA, thinking that this might have been ESA’s Earth-monitoring satellite GOCE that was predicted to fall back to Earth around the same time.

Captain Wijker first wrote to ESA’s Communications Office in ESTEC:

“On 11 November around 02:30z I was the Captain of the BA15 from London to Singapore. Our position was over Russia near Rostov, N42.22.7 E048.53.4, heading east.  We spotted an object south of us that we could not identify. When it came closer it became a white ball of fire travelling at very high speed following roughly the curvature of the Earth disappearing over the horizon to the North. I was able to take some pictures of the vapour trail left behind that I thought might be of your interest.”

We asked the GOCE team, and space debris experts soon confirmed that it was not GOCE but suggested that there was a much more likely candidate.

“02:30 UTC means it could not be GOCE as it had impacted two hours before that time. What about the other major activity in space of that day?” said Rune Floberhagen, ESA’s GOCE mission manager.

ESA’s Space Debris office at ESOC in Darmstadt added:

“As GOCE had already re-entered at that time, I assume this is a sighting of Soyuz TMA-09M that landed 02:49 GMT on 11 November 2013 in Kazakhstan. The reported position is over the Caspian Sea which would match the spacecraft landing around 10 to 20 minutes later in Kazakhstan.”

Roland Luettgens, ESA Mission Director for Luca Parmitano’s Volare mission in the Soyuz at ESA’s Columbus Control Centre, near Munich, soon confirmed:

“Here is what I could reconstruct based on the data we have. Based on this, I think we can confirm that this is the Soyuz 35S.”

Approximate positions of BA15 and Soyuz TMA-09M

Approximate positions of BA15 and Soyuz TMA-09M

Separately, an earlier image that had caught our attention on Twitter – posted by Bill Chater from the Falkland islands – was indeed confirmed to be GOCE (read more on that in our Rocket Science blog).

Soyuz TMA-09M seen from BA15. Notice aircraft cockpit reflection.

Soyuz TMA-09M seen from BA15. Notice aircraft cockpit reflection. Credit: Simon Wijker

Spacecraft launches and re-entries are always conducted in collaboration with air traffic controllers that designate no-fly zones for all commercial aircraft.

The British Airways aircraft was at a safe distance from the re-entry and was in no danger from witnessing this unique spectacle.

Erica Rolfe
ESA Chief Online Publisher