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Holiday calendar: Shuttle in spotlight


The space shuttle Discovery sits like a jewel in its launch-pad setting at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, as seen by the GeoEye-1 satellite on Nov. 1 from an altitude of 425 miles.

The space shuttle has never flown as high as 425 miles, but that’s how high the GeoEye-1 satellite was when it snapped this picture of the shuttle Discovery on its launch pad on Nov. 1.  Discovery is due to set off on its 39th and final mission no earlier than Feb. 3, which means the shuttle will be staying home for Christmas.

GeoEye-1’s view of Discovery serves as the first holiday treat for our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which will feature a different view of Earth from space on each day from now until Christmas. The idea isn’t exactly new: Advent calendars have been a holiday tradition for centuries, and a couple of years ago, The Big Picture at Boston.com began offering up an online calendar countdown of Hubble images.

Last year, the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla followed suit with an Advent calendar of solar system images. And this year, the folks behind the Zooniverse Web portal (incorporating Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo and more) are offering an online Advent calendar that really looks like an Advent calendar.

We can only hope that our Earth-centered holiday countdown works out as well. Let's hope it adds an extra layer of meaning to the phrase "Peace on Earth." Come back to Cosmic Log (or Photoblog) tomorrow and every day until Christmas for a fresh holiday treat.

Here's wishing you a happy holiday season, with true peace on Earth and goodwill toward all.

Door 2 / December 2: 'Alien' lake seen from space:


California's Mono Lake lies along the western edge of the Great Basin. A series of plug volcanoes known as the Mono Craters can be seen running along an expanse south of the lake.

Eastern California's Mono Lake is where scientists conducted experiments aimed at determining whether a particular kind of salt-loving microbe could consume arsenic rather than phosphorus to keep life's machinery going. The results suggested that life is more adaptable than we thought -- and that's good news for astrobiologists looking for places where life could exist beyond Earth. Even though the microbe is totally terrestrial, Mono Lake is an alien-looking place, as my colleague Robert Hood pointed out in an earlier posting. Mono Lake also has an unusual chemistry: It ranks as one of the most arsenic-rich bodies of water on Earth (although the lake's fans emphasize that the water isn't as toxic as you might think.) It's also more than twice as salty as the ocean. The lake, which has no outlet, is thought to have existed for at least 760,000 years and possibly much longer.

This image of Mono Lake was captured in 1999 by NASA's Landsat 7 satellite, and it serves as the second offering in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar.

Door 3 / December 3: Egypt's river of light:

NASA / Reuters

A night-time photograph snapped from the International Space Station on Oct. 28 shows the bright lights of Cairo and Alexandria as well as Egypt's Nile River and its delta.

The River Nile lights up the night in a photographic view captured from the International Space Station, sailing in orbit about 220 miles above. You can also see lights ringing the Red Sea, as well as Israel's lights along the Mediterranean coast toward upper right. I love the airglow effect visible at the edge of Earth's disc.

This picture, taken Oct. 28, was one of a series highlighted by my colleague John Brecher last month, but I can't resist coming back to it as today's treat for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. Maybe that's because we're in the midst of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Or maybe it's because of today's story about the geology behind the ancient "Gift of the Nile" floods. This glittering view from space can be seen as a gift of the Nile for the 21st century.

Door 4 / December 4: Tallest building reaches for the sky:


This half-meter-resolution satellite image features the Burj Khalifa building, located along the Sheikh Zayed Road in the heart of downtown Dubai. The skyscraper stands 2,717 feet (828 meters) high and is the tallest human-made structure in the world. The image was taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite from an altitude of 423 miles on Feb. 9, 2010, as it moved from north to south over the United Arab Emirates at a speed of 4 miles per second.

The tallest building in the world casts a long shadow on downtown Dubai, as seen in this picture from the GeoEye-1 satellite. But this is no Tower of Babel: Its 2,717-foot height comes nowhere close to reaching the satellite's 423-mile-high orbit. The $1.5 billion Burj Khalifa building made its Dubai debut in January, and recently served as the setting for scenes filmed with Tom Cruise for the upcoming movie "Mission: Impossible 4." Check out our story about the building's opening for additional background and visual perspectives.

It's particularly apt that Burj Khalifa figures in the fourth "Mission: Impossible" movie, because GeoEye's view serves as the visual treat behind Door No. 4 in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. Check back with Cosmic Log or Photoblog every day until Christmas for another view of Earth from space.

Door 5 / December 5: Dazzling delta:


An image from Landsat 7, acquired in 2000, shows Russia's Lena Delta.

This picture may look like a delicate ocean coral ... or a microscopic view of a stained tissue sample ... or a visualization of someone's psychedelic dream. But it's actually an image of Russia's Lena River delta, captured in the year 2000 by the Landsat 7 satellite. The colors don't reflect what you would actually see if you were looking down from Landsat's 438-mile-high orbit; rather, they represent different types of surface composition, ranging from vegetation-covered terrain to bare ground and bodies of water. This online tutorial explains the seemingly crazy color scheme.

The Lena River is about 2,800 miles (4,400 kilometers) long, making it one of the largest rivers in the world. The Lena Delta Reserve is the most extensive protected wilderness area in Russia, providing an important refuge and breeding grounds for many species of Siberian wildlife.

For more Landsat goodness, feast your eyes on this year's "Earth as Art" slideshow.

Door 6 / December 6: Space skipper vs. the world:


This photograph, taken from the International Space Station, is one of the pictures that played a part in station commander Scott Kelly's Geography Trivia Contest.

A picture from the International Space Station makes for a pretty ocean scene — and a pretty cool trivia contest as well. For the past four weeks, space station commander Scott Kelly has been teasing his Twitter followers with pictures from orbit, with prizes promised to the winners.

The prizes? Pictures of those Earth views autographed by Kelly himself, to be sent out after he comes down from the station in March. But this contest is a matter of pride as well as prizes. The first one to come up with the right answer to each week's challenge gets a tweeted tribute from the world's highest-flying skipper.

Kelly arrived at the station aboard a Soyuz craft in October, and took over command of the space station from his fellow NASA astronaut, Doug Wheelock, on Thanksgiving Day. Wheelock had been NASA's top tweetmeister aboard the station, and Kelly inherited that role as well as the title of commander.

Have you figured out what this picture shows yet? David Cohen of Vineland, N.J., correctly guessed that it's the Bahamas, winning Round 2 of Kelly's contest.

Door 7 / December 7: Pearl Harbor from the heavens:

Satellite Imaging / GeoEye

The Ikonos satellite captured this image of Ford Island at Pearl Harbor in 2003. Labels indicate the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Utah Memorial. The Battleship Missouri is also visible, docked near the Arizona Memorial.

years ago, Hawaii's Pearl Harbor became famous for "a date which willl live in infamy": Japan's air attack on the island's U.S. naval installation on Dec. 7, 1941. The United States immediately entered World War II, opposing the Axis powers, and the rest is ... well, history. This year's anniversary was commemorated with ceremonies as well as images from that terrible time.

This image shows a far more peaceful scene: Ford Island, as seen by the Ikonos satellite in 2003 from an altitude of 423 miles. Labels indicate the locations of the USS Arizona Monument and the USS Utah Monument, and you can also make out the Battlefield Missouri, docked near the Arizona site. (The Missouri was still being built when Pearl Harbor happened.) As large as it is, this version of the image doesn't do justice to the satellite's camera resolution. You should take a look at the larger picture on the Satellite Imaging website. To see how U.S. ships were positioned on the day of the 1941 attack, check out this diagram of "Battleship Row." And don't miss this video clip from "NBC Nightly News."

The Pearl Harbor anniversary is a good reminder that the holiday season is a time to remember past sacrifices and struggles as well.

Door 8 / December 8: Listening for E.T.:


The 1,000-foot-wide Arecibo Observatory faces up toward the heavens in this image captured by the GeoEye-1 satellite on June 30, 2009.

The 1,000-foot-wide Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is used for lots of scientific inquiries, such as getting a fix on comets and tracking down radio pulsars. But Arecibo is best-known as the world's biggest listening post for radio signals that might be coming from extraterrestrial civilizations. No confirmed transmissions have been picked up yet, but just in the past week there's been more talk about the prospects for finding extraterrestrial life. Only thing is, that life would probably be more similar to slime mold than little green men. The search for E.T. continues, at Arecibo as well as the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California.

This half-meter-resolution picture of Arecibo's giant radio dish was taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite last year, from an altitude of more than 400 miles. If you look closely at the full-resolution version of the image, you can easily make out the cars in the observatory's parking lot, and even the 40-foot swimming pool. I had a ground-level tour of the facility seven years ago and wrote up this little travelogue about it.

Door 9 / December 9: Blast from the past:

NASA / Michigan Tech / IGEPN

A false-color image from NASA's Terra satellite shows an eruption under way at Ecuador's Tungurahua Volcano in August 2006.

There's a terrible beauty to volcanic eruptions, as we've seen over the past few days during an upsurge in activity at Ecuador's Tungurahua Volcano. Over the weekend, villagers near Tungurahua fled their homes because of an eruption that spewed rocks and ash into the air. Ecuador's "Throat of Fire" has roared spectacularly at least three times in the past year -- and there have been many other flare-ups since the volcano awoke in 1999.

This false-color image, captured by NASA's Terra satellite in shortwave infrared, near-infrared and green wavelengths, shows the volcano belching ash in August 2006. The satellite image also records the impact of earlier eruptions. Deep purple rivulets of rock make their way through green vegetation. The rock is from previous lava flows that have solidified. Arcing around the west side of the volcano is the bright blue ribbon of the Chambo River.

Tip o' the Log to Alan Taylor at The Big Picture and Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society, as well as the good folks of the Zooniverse. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter.