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NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to make its last trip into low Earth orbit. Discovery will be traveling to the International Space Station, carrying a large module packed with supplies and critical spare parts, as well as a robotic assistant named Robonaut 2. With the entire Space Shuttle program scheduled for mandatory retirement this year, Discovery is the most-flown spacecraft in history, traveling 143 million miles (230 million kilometers) over the course of its 39 missions since 1984, and spending nearly a full year in orbit. Gathered here are images of Discovery, its crew, and support staff from the past several months, while the spacecraft was being prepared for today's launch. This mission, STS-133, is scheduled for liftoff at 4:50 p.m Eastern Time. Robonaut 2 waits inside the electromagnetic interference chamber at Johnson Space Center following tests that ensure the robot's electronic systems won't cause problems for other important systems at the International Space Station. R2 will be journeying to the space station onboard Discovery during the STS-133 mission. At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shuttle Discovery pauses in between Orbiter Processing Facility-3 and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) during a move called "rollover" on September 9th, 2010. Once inside the VAB, the shuttle will be joined to its solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank. Later, Discovery was scheduled to "rollout" to Launch Pad 39A for its launch to the International Space Station on the STS-133 mission. Spectators watch as space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 24, 2011. Six astronauts are aboard on a mission to the International Space Station.

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view Space Shuttle Discovery's Final Launch as presented by: The Atlantic


"It was one of those images that demanded more investigation," says photographer and film maker Andrew Zuckerman of a photo of a macaw that he had shot for his first book, CREATURE. So for his latest project, Zuckerman focused his lenses on birds. "Imagery of birds is found in all ancient art and has been repeatedly used throughout history—I was curious if I could add something to this tradition." The result is the new book BIRD from Chronicle Books, a collection of avian photographs stunning for their brilliant simplicity. Here, DISCOVER presents some high-flying highlights. From the plebeian pigeon to the rarest bird of all. The Spix's macaw, or the little blue macaw, may be the most endangered bird in the world. The last remaining member of its species known to be living in the wild, a lone male, was discovered in Brazil in 1990, but it has not been seen since 2000. Approximately 120 individuals now survive in captive breeding programs. Fifty of these are kept in the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar where Andrew captured them on film. This scarlet macaw is found in the subtropical rainforests of Central and South America. Individual birds can grow up to three feet in length, with nearly half that length consisting of long, tapered tail feathers. here's something special in a blue feather. Unlike feathers of other colors, which are pigmented, bright blue feathers, like these on the vulturine guineafowl, are the result of nanoscale structures in the feather barbs. Microscopic air cavities within the feather barbs are arranged just so to allow coherent light scattering, creating a blue hue. Green feathers are typically the result of a combination of blue structural color and yellow pigments.

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view Stunning High-Speed Photos of Birds as presented by: Discover Magazine


Driven by the forces of sexual selection, male—and, in some instances, female—animals have evolved a dizzying array of mating displays and rituals. For jumping spiders, mating can be an tricky affair—but not for the reasons you might think. According to a recent study published in Current Biology, jumping spiders communicate during courtship using ultraviolet B (UVB) light, which humans are unable to see. While scientists have long known that certain species use UVA light for communication, this was the first study to demonstrate that some are also able to detect shorter-wavelength UVB light. The male jumping spiders have specialized scales that glow white and green when exposed to UV light; in female spiders, the palps appeared green under UV light. And the absence of UVB light effectively killed the mood: As soon as either sex was exposed to light without ultraviolet rays, the other immediately lost interest in mating. While this male mandrill may look unfriendly, mandrills are social animals that live in large groups in Africa’s rainforests. Each pack is led by a dominant, alpha male. These brightly colored, or “fatted” alpha males—as seen in this picture—are the only ones to sire offspring, and have much higher levels of testosterone than the paler, “non-fatted” males. The red color on the male’s face and genitalia also indicate its dominance within the group. What the male fiddler crabs lack in body size, he more than makes up for in claws. The large claw, or cheliped—which looks like a fiddle when moved in conjunction with the smaller claw—is used for communication, courtship, and combat. The smaller claw is used for eating and building a burrow.

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view Flash, Deception and Suicide: 10 Remarkable Tricks of Animal Mating as presented by: Discover Magazine


Shuttle Discovery and its astronauts returned safely to Earth on Tuesday after making a rare flyover of America's heartland to wrap up their 15-day, 6 million mile journey to the International Space Station. The touchdown was delayed by rain and fog that dissipated as the sun rose, allowing Mission Control to take advantage of the morning's second landing opportunity. NASA had promised a spectacular show, weather permitting, for early risers in Helena, Mont., and all the way along Discovery's flight path through the Midwest and Southeast. With the space shuttle program winding down, there weren't expected to be any more continental flyovers. This was, in fact, Discovery's next-to-last flight. Only one more mission remains for NASA's oldest surviving shuttle. As soon as it's removed from the runway, it will be prepped for the final shuttle flight, scheduled for September. During the STS-131 mission's first spacewalk, astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Clayton Anderson (out of frame) moved a new 1,700-pound ammonia tank from space shuttle Discovery's cargo bay to a temporary parking place on the station, retrieved an experiment from the Japanese Kibo Laboratory exposed facility and replaced a Rate Gyro Assembly on one of the truss segments.

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view Shuttle Discovery's 15-day Mission To The Space Station as presented by: Sacramento Bee


The stunning pictures of Saturn, the deep field, the Eagle, Crab, and Butterfly nebulae—in its 20 years of operation, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken what are now some of the most famous images in astronomy. But you've seen those over and over. As NASA prepares to mark the telescope's two-decade anniversary on April 24, we thought we'd bring you a selection of the Hubble's slightly less famous—but still gorgeous—contributions. These ravishing images come from the new book by Edward J. Weiler, Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time, published by Abrams Books in collaboration with NASA. may not be immediately obvious the first time you see this image, but notice the ring of slightly darker color around the center. That's a simulated map of the dark matter halo around galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17, superimposed on a Hubble picture. The ring may have been formed when two galactic clusters collided. Images like this are one of the ways researchers detect dark matter through its effects. In this case, Hubble observed how the gravity of this cluster distorted the light from more distant galaxies, and determined that the cluster's ordinary matter couldn't account for all of the distortion.

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view Happy Birthday, Hubble: The Telescope's Most Underrated Images as presented by: Discover Magazine


Some fish scorn the easy life of the shoreline, and instead spend most of their lives out to sea, wandering in the wild blue yonder. In a new book from the University of Chicago Press, Fishes of the Open Ocean, author Julian Pepperell lets readers get up close and personal with these impressive and mysterious ocean denizens. This gorgeous picture shows a flying fish gliding towards touchdown on the smooth sea. The flying fish achieves takeoff by flapping its tail at speeds of 50 to 70 beats per second, and spreading its "wings," or modified fins. Scientists have observed flying fish traveling more than 400 yards in a single flight, though Pepperell writes that such distances are only achieved when the fish dips its whirring tail back into the water a few times for extra bursts of propulsion. ale sharks' habits are still poorly understood, but electronic tagging is beginning to reveal their secrets. Scientists recently realized that whale sharks aren't slow, lumbering creatures as previously thought; instead they leverage their massive weight to dive-bomb through the water like a hawk falling through the sky. he black marlin is a giant of the ocean, measuring up to 13 feet in length and weighing up to 1,500 pounds. The fish cruises the Pacific and Indian oceans in search of smaller fish to devour, and sometimes uses its spear-like upper jaw to stun its prey.

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view Serpents, Flyers and Hammers: Strange Fish That Rule the Open Sea as presented by: Discover Magazine

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