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A nighttime view of Western Europe taken by the Earth-orbiting International Space Station crew shows the ISS’s robotic arm and solar arrays in the foreground. Belgium and the Netherlands can be seen at bottom center, the North Sea at left center, and Scandinavia at right center. ISS crew member Don Petit fleshes out the reality of life in space by sharing physical details–including the smells, sounds and mind-boggling views on his Letters to Earth blog. Mr. Petit shares his privileged viewpoint in a recent entry:

“From orbit, the more you know about our planet, the more you can see. You see all the geological features described in textbooks. You see fault zones, moraines, basins, ranges, impact craters, dikes, sills, braided channels, the strike and dip of layered rocks, folding, meanders, oxbow lakes, slumps, slides, mud flows, deltas, alluvial fans, glaciers, karst topography, cirques, tectonicplates, rifts zones, cinder cones, crater lakes, fossil sea shores, lava flows, volcanic plumes, fissures, eruptions, dry lakes, inverted topography, latteric soils, and many more.

You see clouds of every description and combination: nimbus, cumulus, stratus, nimbo-cumulus, nimbo-stratus, cirrus, thunderheads, and typhoons, sometimes with clockwise rotation, sometimes with counter-clockwise. You notice patterns: Clouds over cold oceans look different than clouds over warm oceans. Sometimes the continents are all cloud-covered, so you have no recognizable land-mass to help you gauge where you are. If you see a crisscross of jet contrails glistening in the sun above the clouds, you know you are over the United States.”

You can keep up with the current six-member expedition crew on board the ISS by following the ISS blog on NASA.gov, or by following @NASA_Astronauts on Twitter.

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According to Flickr, this Western hemisphere Blue Marble 2012 image has more than 3.1 million views as of Feb. 1, making it one of the all-time most viewed images on the site after only one week. The above is one of two new images of earth that have been added to NASA’s Blue Marble collection. NASA Scientist Norman Kuring is the man behind both new Blue Marble images made with data from NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite—Suomi NPP. Suomi NPP is carrying an instrument called VIIRS (The Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite). NASA scientist Norman Kuring writes:

“The VIIRS collects its imagery of the Earth one scan-line at a time as the spacecraft orbits from south to north across the sunlit side of the planet… A swath like the one shown here would take something like 15 to 20 minutes to collect. The image that I made shows the part of the Earth that you could see if you were 2124 kilometers above a point just a bit to the northwest of Mexico City. To be able to completely cover that area I had to use data from four consecutive orbits. Each orbit takes roughly 100 minutes to complete, and, during that time, the Earth rotates underneath the NPP spacecraft, so each orbit views a swath that is farther west than the previous one…I have to do a little judicious blending along these common edges because clouds can move significantly during the 100 minutes that it takes for the sensor to come back around the Earth. If you wanted to get an image of the entire Earth’s surface you would need a whole day’s worth of data, which is 14 to 15 orbits. (Even then, the North polar region would be dark at this time of year.) The data were all collected on Jan. 4, 2012.”

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If all goes well, tomorrow morning at approximately 10:02 a.m. Eastern time (GMT-5), NASA will launch its newest rover named Curiosity from Florida's Cape Canaveral, headed on a nine-month trip to the planet Mars. The $2.3 billion mission will send a capsule into the Martian sky in August of 2012. After decelerating in the atmosphere, a series of entry events will quickly take place, ending with a rocket-powered sky crane lowering the rover gently to the surface. Curiosity is a beast of a rover, weighing one ton, measuring ten feet long by seven feet tall (at the top of the mast), and powered by a plutonium-238 fueled electrical generator. The rover carries ten instruments, including several high-resolution cameras, and a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy instrument called ChemCam that can vaporize tiny amounts of minerals and analyze their components. If all goes according to plan, Curiosity is scheduled for a stay on Mars of about 668 Martian sols, or nearly two Earth years, starting in Gale crater. Researchers hope to use the tools on Curiosity to study whether the area in Gale crater has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed. (Edit: The launch was successful, and Curiosity is due to land in August of 2012.) [34 photos]

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, on May 26, 2011, in Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The rover was shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on June 22, 2011. The mission is scheduled to launch tomorrow, November 26, 2011, and land the Curiosity on Mars in August of 2012. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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Now that the final space shuttle has landed, many thousands involved with it have lost their jobs, and budget cuts loom, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the other projects NASA has been working on recently, and what will be keeping the agency busy in the coming years. There has been a flurry of discoveries and firsts just this year alone, as scientists have discovered a fourth moon around Pluto, and a spacecraft has entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta for the first time. Earlier this month the spacecraft Juno launched toward Jupiter, while workers prepared the next Mars rover, Curiosity, for launch by the end of this year. All of this on top of supporting existing missions to the sun, Mercury, Earth, Mars, Saturn and more. Collected here is just a small recent sampling of NASA's far-reaching projects and missions. [33 photos]

Rising from fire and smoke, NASA's Juno planetary probe, enclosed in its payload fairing, launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Leaving from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, on August 5, 2011, the spacecraft will embark on a five-year journey to Jupiter. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core. (NASA/Scott Andrews)

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NASA’s latest high tech spacecraft, launched Friday August 5th, 2011 aboard an Atlas V rocket, is named after the Greek and Roman goddess Juno. Juno was able to peer through the veil of clouds that her husband, Jupiter, drew around himself to hide his mischief. Over a cycle of 33 orbits, Juno will pass over Jupiter’s north and south poles, allowing the first close-up looks at the bright auroras there.

Juno will cover the distance from Earth to the moon–about 250,000 miles in less than one day’s time. However, scientists will have to wait another five years for Juno to complete the journey to Jupiter. With four large moons and many smaller moons, Jupiter forms its own miniature solar system. Once Juno is in orbit around Jupiter, it will use its collection of eight science instruments to probe beneath the gas giant’s obscuring cloud cover to learn more about its origins, structure, atmosphere, and magnetosphere, and look for a potential solid planetary core. In order to survive the powerful radiation surrounding Jupiter, Juno’s instruments are protected inside a titanium vault. This radiation will eventually degrade the electronics, and the spacecraft will be sent crashing into the planet.

This true color mosaic of Jupiter was constructed from images taken by the narrow angle camera on NASA’s older Cassini spacecraft during its closest approach to the giant planet at a distance of approximately 6.2 million miles. It is the most detailed global color portrait of Jupiter ever produced; the smallest visible features are approximately 37 miles across. The mosaic is composed of 27 images, and each of those locations was imaged in red, green, and blue to provide true color. Although Cassini’s camera can see more colors than humans can, Jupiter’s colors in this view look close to the way the human eye would see them. Over an hour was required for this portrait. Jupiter rotated during this time, so the face and the lighting on its moving clouds, were changing. In order to assemble a seamless mosaic, each image was first digitally re-positioned to reflect the planet’s appearance at the instant the first exposure was taken. Then, the lighting variation across each image was removed, and the mosaic was re-illuminated by a computer-generated ‘Sun’ from a direction that allowed all imaged portions to appear in sunlight at once.

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When Atlantis touched down yesterday at Cape Canaveral, Fla., the high-flying era of the space shuttles came down to earth as well. After 30 years, the shuttle program, which began on April 12, 1981 with Colombia, has ended with the 135th mission. Atlantis delivered the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module packed with supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station, and retrieved a failed pump unit and other items for the return trip. Atlantis went aloft 33 times, logging over 125 million miles. The last shuttle will become a museum exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center. -- Lane Turner (41 photos total)
The space shuttle Atlantis flies over the Bahamas prior to a perfect docking with the International Space Station on July 10, 2011. Part of a Russian Progress spacecraft docked to the station is in the foreground. (AP Photo/NASA)

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Adam Rutherford at the Guardian has put together a lovely tribute to the space shuttle.

About 18 months ago, we at Nature started to think about the shuttle's retirement. Others will and have written about the scientific legacy of this grandstanding space programme, but I just wanted to make something beautiful. I figured that as each flight followed a very distinct path (countdown, launch, roll, pitch, yaw, jettison boosters etc.), we could show one journey, cut from every single mission, in order.

Nasa, an organisation that has put men on the moon, kept their video archive on VHS. One of my editors described this as "humankind's greatest achievement recorded on the world's lousiest format". So the first job was to digitise and sift through more than a hundred hour-long videotapes.

I knew that I wanted this to be a music video, and that the soundtrack should be soaring, anthemic and unapologetically triumphalist. Twitter led me to the Sheffield band 65daysofstatic, whose rousing, uplifting energy embodies my sentiments perfectly in two different songs. Two brilliant editors, Nature's Charlotte Stoddart, and the band's video producer Dave Holloway took those songs, and all that shonky footage, and made it better than I ever could have imagined. Each space shuttle mission is there, in chronological order (note: the mission numbering does not follow, for various reasons).

This is a deeply personal film. Those spaceships have been in my life since as long as I can remember, and I think many feel that shared ownership.

Video Link

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Bill Ingalls / NASA via EPA

Space shuttle Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, July 12, 2011. The Atlantis landing marked the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center. "After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It‘s come to a final stop," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said.

Pierre Ducharme / Reuters

Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011. The space shuttle Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet.

David J. Phillip / AP

Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz. lelft, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land Thursday, July 21, 2011, in Houston.

Phaedra Singelis writes

It's hard to photograph something far away in darkness, but photographers still managed to make some beautiful images of the last landing of the shuttle this morning.

More shuttle photos on PhotoBlog

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Today marks the end of an era. Three decades of missions came to a close this morning as the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida after a 13-day trip to the International Space Station. All told, the 135 space shuttle missions have racked up more than 542 million miles in low earth orbit. Commander Chris Ferguson piloted the Atlantis to a safe landing at 5:52 a.m., and the spacecraft will soon undergo processing and decommissioning. It has been an emotional experience for residents and workers along Florida's Space Coast -- some 9,000 shuttle engineers, technicians, and other staff are being laid off, and the main tourism draw for the area has come to an end. Shown here, for one last time, is a look at a full shuttle mission, STS-135, the final flight of Atlantis. Also, be sure to see The History of the Space Shuttle, an earlier entry on In Focus. [39 photos]

A view of the space shuttle Atlantis and its payload on July 10, 2011, seen from the International Space Station. At the rear of the cargo bay is the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, packed with supplies and spare parts for the ISS. (NASA)

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