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Holiday calendar: Satellite spies a fantastic fan

This picture may remind you of an alien landscape, but it's actually a look at our own planet from hundreds of miles above. NASA's Terra satellite captured this view of a 35-mile-wide (55-kilometer-wide) alluvial fan in China's Xinjiang Province in 2002.

The geological feature spreads across the desolate landscape between the Kunlun and Altun mountain ranges that form the southern border of the Taklimakan Desert. Terra's color-coded view shows water flowing down from the mountains along the left side of the fan. Vegetation appears in shades of red in the upper left corner. NASA says the lumpy-looking terrain at the top of the image consists of sand dunes at the edge of the Taklimakan, one of the largest sandy deserts on Earth.

This is one of the first images you'll see in "Earth as Art," a newly published 158-page book featuring satellite pictures of planet Earth. NASA is making the book freely available online in PDF format, but it can also be downloaded as an iPad app or purchased as a coffee-table book from the U.S. Government Printing Office's online store.

"Earth as Art" serves as a great kickoff for this year's Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which highlights views of Earth from space. Every day from now until Dec. 25, we'll pass along a fresh image for you to enjoy. The idea takes its inspiration from a traditional Advent calendar, which lets kids count down to Christmas with a daily treat.

If one cosmic treat a day just isn't enough, you're in luck: The Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar has just started up over at The Atlantic's In Focus photo gallery, and Zooniverse is offering a cosmic Advent calendar as well. Feel free to fill your eyes, and your imagination, with all these non-fattening holiday goodies over the next 25 days.

More goodies from space:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other science and space news coverage, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered via email. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.