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Shuttle landing in desert
Discovery glides to a landing at Edwards Air Force base in 2008.
The shuttle typically begins its return flight around half the world away from its landing site. It angles its nose up at 40 degrees, allowing the black tiling underneath to bear the brunt of the 1,600° C heat of re-entry.
When the craft drops below the speed of sound, at around 50,000 feet, the commander takes control. Despite the similarity of its shape to an ordinary aircraft, the shuttle makes its final approach to the runway 20 times faster than the average plane.
The shuttle was originally intended to have air-breathing jet engines to allow it to fly as an aircraft on re-entry; however, cost and weight considerations left it entirely unpowered during the descent, making it the heaviest and fastest glider in history.
Photo credit: Nasa