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Month in Space: February 2016

Winding up his nearly year-long stay on the International Space Station, Scott Kelly continued to tweet out dazzling views of the Earth.

In this cosmic snapshot released on Feb. 12, the spectacularly symmetrical wings of Hen 2-437 show up in an icy blue hue. Hen 2-437 is a planetary nebula, one of around 3000 such objects known to reside within the Milky Way. Located within the faint northern constellation of Vulpecula (The Fox), Hen 2-437 was first identified in 1946 by Rudolph Minkowski, who later also discovered the famous and equally beautiful M2-9 (otherwise known as the Twin Jet Nebula).

Planetary nebulae such as Hen 2-437 form when an aging low-mass star, such as the Sun, reaches the final stages of life. The star swells to become a red giant, before casting off its gaseous outer layers into space. The star itself then slowly shrinks to form a white dwarf, while the expelled gas is slowly compressed and pushed outwards by stellar winds.

Hubble & NASA

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly wears a Microsoft HoloLens on Feb. 20. The device is part of NASA's project Sidekick which is exploring the use of augmented reality to reduce crew training requirements and increase the efficiency at which astronauts can work in space.

Scott Kelly left Earth in March 2015 and except for some spacewalks, has been aboard the International Space station ever since. He and Russian cosmonaut will return to Earth on March 1 having spent 340 days in space. The unprecedented length of the mission allowed researchers to study the physical and psychological challenges astronauts face during long-duration spaceflight.

PHOTOS: A Look Back at Scott Kelly's Year in Space

NASA
"I'm going to miss the colors of Africa!" Scott Kelly said as he tweeted this image on Feb. 22. From his perch aboard the International Space Station, Scott Kelly has frequently dazzled us with the views he's captured of the Earth over the past year. Scott Kelly / NASA
Scott Kelly tweeted this picture of desert dunes on Feb. 26. Kelly's pictures of the Earth's surface can veer from subdued monochromes to startling explosions of color and often look like abstract art, a resemblance Kelly acknowledges with the hastag #EarthArt. Scott Kelly / NASA
Scott Kelly tweeted this image of water on Feb. 28. Kelly captures his startling views from the cupola, a seven-windowed dome on the space station that offers panoramic views of Earth. Scott Kelly / NASA
A bouquet of zinnias floats on the International Space Station in an image tweeted by Scott Kelly to mark Valentine's Day. The zinnias were grown aboard the station, allowing scientists back on Earth to better understand how plants grow in microgravity, and for astronauts to practice doing what they'll be tasked with on a deep space mission: autonomous gardening. "Nursed the #SpaceFlowers all the way to today and now all that remains are memories," tweeted Kelly. Scott Kelly / NASA
Expedition 47 Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, center, dons his Russian Sokol suit on the final day of Soyuz qualification exams on Feb. 25 at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. Ovchinin and the other members of Expedition 47, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, left, are scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station on March 19. Bill Ingalls / NASA

Elements of the International Space Station frame this image of the Earth taken Jan. 31 by the Expedition 46 crew.

NASA
Three of Saturn's moons - Tethys, Enceladus and Mimas - are captured in this group photo from NASA's Cassini spacecraft released on Feb. 22. Tethys (660 miles across) appears above the rings, while Enceladus (313 miles across) sits just below center. Mimas (246 miles across) hangs below and to the left of Enceladus. This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings and was acquired at a distance of approximately 837,000 miles from Enceladus. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via EPA
Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov performs a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Feb. 3. Roscsomos via Reuters
The H-2A rocket carrying the X-ray astronomy satellite "ASTRO-H" launches from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan on Feb. 17. JAXA via EPA
A newly formed star lights up the surrounding cosmic clouds in this image from ESOs La Silla Observatory in Chile, released on Feb. 9. Dust particles in the vast clouds that surround the star HD 97300 diffuse its light, like a car headlight in enveloping fog, and create the reflection nebula IC 2631. Although HD 97300 is in the spotlight for now, the very dust that makes it so hard to miss heralds the birth of additional, potentially scene-stealing, future stars. European Southern Observatory via AFP - Getty Images
A North Korean rocket launches, said to be carrying earth observation satellite Kwangmyong 4, in an image broadcast on North Korean television on Feb. 7. The launch drew stern condemnation from the U.S., Japan and the United Nations. While Pyongyang said the rocket carried a satellite, the launch was widely viewed as a cover for testing ballistic missile technology — in defiance of United Nations sanctions. YONHAP via AFP - Getty Images
The robotic arm in Japan's Kibo laboratory on the International Space Station successfully deploys two combined satellites from two Texas universities on Jan. 29. The pair of satellites -- AggieSat4 built by Texas A&M University students, and BEVO-2 built by University of Texas students -- together form the Low Earth Orbiting Navigation Experiment for Spacecraft Testing Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking (LONESTAR) investigation. The satellites will demonstrate communication protocols between them and with ground stations, as well as systems that allow the satellites to navigate through space and relative to each other and to orient themselves in three dimensions. Flight demonstration of these abilities, necessary for unmanned craft to be able to rendezvous and dock in space without direct human intervention, will contribute to future satellite missions as well. The image was released on Feb. 3. TIM PEAKE / NASA via AFP - Getty Images
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover vehicle appears in a self-portrait at "Namib Dune," where the rover's activities included scuffing into the dune with a wheel and scooping samples of sand for laboratory analysis. The scene, released on Jan. 31, combines 57 images captured by the camera at the end of the rover's robotic arm. Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand "Bagnold Dune Field" along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit have shown that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet per Earth year. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The distinctive blue bubble appearing to encircle WR 31a in this Hubble Space Telescope image released on Feb. 26 is a Wolf-Rayet nebula — an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other gases. Created when speedy stellar winds interact with the outer layers of hydrogen ejected by Wolf-Rayet stars, these nebulae are frequently ring-shaped or spherical. The bubble — estimated to have formed around 20,000 years ago — is expanding at a rate of around 136,700 miles per hour!

Month in Space: January 2016

Hubble/NASA/ESA