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Billion-dollar pictures

Click for video: Backdropped by the thin line of Earth's atmosphere, the

international space station shines in a view captured from the shuttle Discovery.

Click on the image to watch a sped-up video of Discovery's March 25 flyaround.

Is one picture worth a hundred billion dollars? That’s the mostly-in-jest price tag that was put on this week’s portrait of the virtually complete international space station. Pictures may not be the most practical payoff from space exploration, but they’re definitely the biggest crowd-pleasers, as demonstrated by the latest batch of “Month in Space” pictures.

The entertainment value of imagery from the final frontier is just one of the five E's that justify jumping off this planet. The space station is expected to contribute to the other E's as well - for example, through proposed energy-beaming experiments and a host of studies aimed at smoothing the way for future exploration.

When all that research is added to images such as this week's "$100 billion photographs," does that make the estimated cost of the space station project worth it? That sounds like the perfect topic to discuss in the comment section below.

In the meantime, there are lots more billion-dollar pictures to delight in, including some new 3-D views of a Martian dust devil in Spirit's sights, and Opportunity's 360-degree view of its surroundings. You've got to be wearing your red-blue glasses to get the full effect of Resolution Crater, an alien foxhole visible on the right side of Opportunity's panorama.

For those of you who are resolved to adorn your computer desktop with big pictures from space, here are the sources for the images included in the latest "Month in Space" roundup:

Finally, here's an update on a story we first told you about last week: I mentioned that Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope was getting an upgrade, and that more announcements were on the way. This week NASA and Microsoft announced that the sky-simulation software would incorporate 100 terabytes of the space agency's data - enough to fill 20,000 DVDs - under the terms of a Space Act Agreement. (Microsoft is a partner in the joint venture.)

You can look forward to high-resolution pictures from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as well as the yet-to-be-launched Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

"NASA is excited to collaborate with Microsoft to share its portfolio of planetary images with students and lifelong learners," said S. Pete Worden, director of the agency's Ames Research Center at California's Moffett Field. "This is a compelling astronomical resource and will help inspire our next generation of astronomers."

NASA already has a Space Act Agreement with Google for astronomical ventures such as Google Earth and Google Mars - so this new deal means there'll probably be a new dimension to the Microsoft-Google rivalry. And that in turn means it will be easier than ever for space enthusiasts to see NASA's multibillion-dollar imagery.

Update for 6:40 p.m. ET March 28:Here's the high-resolution source for the image of the space station at the top of the item, and here's the full caption. If you click around this photo album, you'll find many more stunning images from the space station flyaround.

Correction for 1 a.m. ET March 29: Yoinks! I typed "Jupiter" instead of "Saturn" for the comment on the "Multitude of Moons" picture. Oh, yeah, Saturn is the one that has the big rings. Thanks to everyone who pointed out the error.