The International Space Station may not be getting any more high-profile visits from U.S. space shuttles, but it's still chugging away up there. And it's still sending back amazing images, including the ones used to make this time-lapse video:

As NASA explains at the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, this sequence of shots was taken during a 20-minute span on Dec. 29, 2011, as the ISS flew over central Africa toward the southern Indian Ocean. All those flashes in the atmosphere below are lightning strikes, and that galaxy rising over the horizon is the Milky Way.

According to NASA:

"The Milky Way can be spotted as a hazy band of white light at the beginning of the video. The pass continues southeast toward the Mozambique Channel and Madagascar. The Lovejoy Comet can be seen very faintly near the Milky Way. The pass ends as the sun is rising over the dark ocean."

The comet isn't easy to spot, but this edited version points it out more clearly:

While NASA's shuttle era is now complete — and Russia's space program has recently suffered multiple setbacks — the ISS is still expecting company soon. California-based SpaceX plans to send its unmanned Dragon space capsule to the ISS in the next few months, marking the first such rendezvous by a commercial spacecraft.

The Dragon launch, originally slated for Feb. 7, has been postponed to allow more engineering tests, but SpaceX still hopes to launch the capsule in the first half of 2012, possibly by late March or early April. (After all, this is the Year of the Dragon.)

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Time-lapse video: Over African skies
The ISS films a dramatic flight over Africa as the Milky Way looms above.