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Astronauts wrap up science experiments

By IRENE BROWN, UPI Science News

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Astronauts aboard the shuttle Columbia wrapped up two weeks' worth of science experiments on Thursday, in preparation for a return to Earth Saturday morning.

Researchers already are hailing the mission a success and making plans for follow-up studies. Among the accomplishments cited during Columbia's 16-day mission: the first clear evidence of the relationship between smoke and clouds.

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Scientists with the University of Tel Aviv in Israel were able to show "a textbook case" of smoke from an Amazon rain forest burn obliterating clouds in the atmosphere, the first clear evidence of a phenomena that had been suspected previously, but never proven, said Joachim Joseph, with the school's Geophysical and Planetary Sciences department.

"Cloudiness is a factor that changes global climate," said Joseph, a principal investigator of an Israel dust experiment that was used to make the discovery.

Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, is a crew member aboard Columbia. Ramon was able to use the dual-spectral imager aboard the shuttle to capture a dust storm over the Middle East. The data will be combined with simultaneous observations made by instruments aboard an aircraft and two satellites as they passed over the site.

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The shuttle's imager also was used for studies of upper atmospheric lightning phenomena called elves and sprites.

The atmospheric studies are among 80 investigations that Ramon and his six crewmates have been conducting. The shuttle is due back at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:16 a.m. ET Saturday. Forecasters are predicting good weather for landing.

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