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Celebrate Earth and space

Earth Day is a great day to celebrate our planet, reflect on new ways to protect it - and widen your planetary perspective as well.

To mark the occasion, you can download the latest goodies from the Hubble Space Telescope, send out personalized postcards of our home planet and catch one of the season's best sky shows.

It turns out that the 40th annual observance of Earth Day on April 22 is just one reason to celebrate: Wednesday also marks the peak of the spring season's best-known meteor shower, the Lyrids. Then, on Friday, Hubble officially turns 19 years old - and that's why so many treats from outer space are being made available this week.

Here are some ways to maximize the cosmic celebration:

See Earth from space
We all know that many of the top benefits from outer space flow from the constellations of satellites orbiting our planet. It's hard to imagine how modern society can function without the video, voice and data signals that are beamed around the world.

One of DISH Network's telecom satellites, EchoStar 11, is equipped with a camera that keeps daily watch on the world from a height of 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) - and on Wednesday, you'll be able to see the world the way EchoStar's Earth Watch camera sees it. You can even send free Earth e-cards to your friends online.

The e-cards are part of a promotional offer from Give the World, a service from Houston-based Space Services Inc. that prints up Earth-view pictures for sale. Space Services is also involved in memorial launches like the one that sent "Star Trek" actor James "Scotty" Doohan's ashes into space - but this venture focuses on future inspiration rather than past remembrance.

"The photos taken by DISH Network's Earth Watch camera remind us all of the need to care for our home planet," Charles Chafer, Space Services' chief executive officer, said in a news release.

GivetheWorld.com
E-cards showing views of our home planet are being sent out on Earth Day.

For more Earth Day views from space, tune into NASA Television from 6 to 9 a.m., noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. ET. Those are the times when NASA will broadcast high-definition views of Earth as seen from the international space station, 220 miles (350 kilometers) up. You can watch NASA TV online 24/7, of course.

NASA is offering a long lineup of Earth Day resources and activities this week, and on Wednesday you'll find out which space achievement has been judged the "biggest hit for the home planet" in an online poll. (Looks like GPS navigation is going to be a shoo-in.)

And for some of the best-ever views of Earth from space, you simply have to check out our "greatest hits" from space crews and orbiting satellites (plus this bonus round).

Catch a sky show
If the skies are clear, you can begin your Earth Day celebration early by going out after midnight tonight to watch the Lyrid meteor shower at its peak. Conditions are expected to be ideal, due to the fact that the moon is nearly new and shouldn't interfere with viewing.

Roen Kelly / Astronomy
Lyrid meteors appear to emanate from the
constellation Lyra, as shown in this graphic.
Click on the image for more information
from Astronomy magazine.


Lyrid meteors are sparked by bits of debris left behind by Comet Thatcher. Those bits create meteor trails in the upper atmosphere every year in mid-April, when Earth passes through Thatcher's trail. The best viewing occurs between midnight and dawn.

Although the Lyrids seem to emanate from the constellation Lyra, they can appear anywhere in the night sky. maximize your viewing experience, find a comfortable place with clear, open skies, far away from city lights. Spread out a chaise lounge, keep warm, and keep your eyes open. You could see as many as 10 to 20 Lyrids during the peak hour.

Astronomy magazine provides a preview of the Lyrids, and you can also learn more about the meteor shower from this archived sky guide.

As long as you're up, check out the close encounter between the moon and Venus right around sunrise. Space.com, Science @ NASA and Sky & Telescope have the details. You might even catch the glint of the international space station in early-morning skies.

Wish Hubble a happy birthday
In addition to being our home, Earth is our jumping-off point for the universe beyond - and the Hubble Space Telescope is one of humanity's best instruments for taking a virtual leap into the cosmos.

NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA

Galaxies swirl in this 19th-birthday picture from
Hubble. Click on the image for bigger versions.


Friday marks the 19th anniversary of Hubble's launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery, which means the grand old space telescope will be entering its 20th year of operation.

To celebrate the occasion, Hubble's international team has released a stunning image of interacting galaxies and a cosmic "fountain of youth."

The picture shows a galactic trio known as Arp 194, 600 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. (One light-year equals 6 trillion miles or 10 trillion kilometers, the distance that a beam of light travels in a year.)

Two of the galaxies are colliding in the upper part of the frame, and the gravitational interaction has thrown off a bright blue stream of newborn stars. It may looks as if that 100,000-light-year-long "fountain" is trickling down into the galaxy in the lower half of the image, but that's an illusion. In reality, that galaxy just happens to be in the background.

This video explains it all for you, and if you head over to the European Space Agency's Hubble Web portal, you can download a printworthy picture of the cosmic clash as well as other online goodies.

Over the past 19 years, Hubble has made more than 880,000 observations and snapped more than 570,000 images of 29,000 celestial objects, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute. Although the "fountain of youth" label isn't meant to be taken literally, the telescope is in fact due for some much-needed rejuvenation next month: If all goes according to plan, shuttle astronauts will upgrade some instruments, repair others, and give Hubble fresh batteries and gyros that should see it through until at least 2013.

For more great views from space, as seen by Hubble and other out-of-this-world observers, click through our Space Gallery. We hope these views will add to your appreciation for "Spaceship Earth" on Earth Day.