When one door closes…..

The Space Shuttle Atlantis lands for the final time at the Kennedy Space Centre, 5.57am EDT on July 21, 2011 (image: NASA)

Thirty years of Space Shuttle flights came to an end earlier this month with the safe landing of Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Centre on July 21. The event was widely covered in the media and there was much analysis about how successful the Shuttle project had been and where the American human space flight programme goes from here.

The Shuttles were, by any standard, an enormous technical and scientific achievement. The programme succeeded in its principal aim of making human space flight a more regular occurrence and played a major role in building, developing and maintaining the International Space Station. But perhaps its most significant achievement was opening space travel to a wider cross-section of the international scientific community. The regular launch and landing of Shuttles became part of all our lives, and the end of this era undoubtedly leaves a big void.

While the human space flight programme has clearly reached a crossroads, the scientific exploration of the final frontier has never been in better shape. The best illustration of this took place on July 15 when the NASA Dawn spacecraft went into orbit around the asteroid 4 Vesta. In the days following this event Dawn has sent back a series of stunning images that have instantly transformed our understanding of this large and important body. Dawn will orbit Vesta for about a year before heading off to study the largest body in the asteroid belt, Ceres.

Image of 4 Vesta taken on July 24, 2011 using the Dawn spacecraft framing camera. The spacecraft was at a distance of 5,200 km from Vesta when the image was taken (image: NASA).

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