The space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of seven have returned to Earth after a record 16-day mission that delivered part of a Japanese lab and a Canadian robot to the International Space Station.
After touching down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Endeavour’s commander, Dominic Gorie said: “It was a super-rewarding mission, exciting from the start to the ending.”
Endeavour was supposed to land before sunset, but at virtually the last minute, clouds moved in.
As the astronauts took an extra swing around the planet, the sky cleared enough to satisfy flight controllers and – after asking Gorie for his opinion – they gave him the green light to head home.
It was only the 22nd space shuttle landing in darkness. Less than one-fifth of all missions have ended at nighttime; the last one was in 2006.
Captured against the stunning backdrop of the Earth, an astronaut hangs precariously 250 miles above the Earth as the International Space Station hurtles through space at 17,000mph.
The £70billion structure – a giant network of pressurised cabins, solar panels and radiators – is now in its tenth year of construction yet still is only about 70 per cent complete.
Orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes, it is the second-brightest thing in the night sky after the Moon and also the most expensive object ever built.
The station is designed to carry out scientific research and test the effects of life in space on humans – all in preparation for the day when mankind (eventually) ventures to Mars.
Due to be completed in 2010 and expected to operate until at least 2016, it has been continuously occupied by an average of three astronauts since the first crew arrived in November 2000.