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.


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.

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 Dec. 17 — which means it would still be in orbit on Christmas Day.

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 began offering up an online calendar countdown of Hubble images.

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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.

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Door 2 / December 2: ‘Alien’ lake seen from space:

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.

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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.


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