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Mother dies as Italian astronaut son is in orbit

During 4½ months in orbit, astronaut Paolo Nespoli was able to keep in touch with his ailing mother in Italy from the International Space Station via a video linkup.

But the astronaut will miss her funeral.

Maria Motta, 78, died on Monday evening at home while her eldest son continued his mission. She will be buried after a funeral in the church in Verano Brianza, a town of 9,300 north of Milan where she was born and where she raised four children, one of whom became an astronaut.

"Even if he was prepared for this possibility — he knew about his mother's health problems — it is painful not to be able to be near her at the last moments," Verano Brianza Mayor Renato Casati told The Associated Press.

To protect the family's privacy, he declined to discuss the illness or its length. But he said that the family was able to be in frequent touch with Nespoli thanks to a video hookup installed in Motta's home by the European Space Agency.

Italian sons, in particular, tend not to venture far from home. But Nespoli, who has been training with NASA in Houston since 1998, has been orbiting the Earth since December on mission scheduled to end in three weeks.

The 54-year-old astronaut has been keeping his 43,000-followers in Twitter updated with photos posted from space as he circles the planet, commenting frequently on the beauty seen from his vantage point. The western region of China. Sunshine Coast, Australia. Rewari, India. His last post was Sunday.

Nespoli's first space mission also was marked by the death of a parent. His father, a banker, died just months after Nespoli was notified he had been accepted for his first space mission, which launched in 2007.

"Paolo said, 'We have been waiting so long for this, and my father didn't make it to see it,'" Casati recalled.

Casati said Nespoli's wife and young daughter had traveled back from Houston to be with his mother. Motta is also survived by three other children.

"She was proud of all her children, not just one," Casati said.

Officials at the European Space Agency said that in such an instance it might be possible to set up a satellite hookup so the absent astronaut could participate in funeral services. However, Casati said he did not know if it would be technically feasible in time.

Such family tragedies have befallen astronauts in the past.

U.S. astronaut Daniel Tani's mother was killed in an accident while he was living on the space station in 2007. And former space station commander Scott Kelly was on the space station when his sister-in-law, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot on Jan. 8.

Giffords' husband, Endeavor commander Mark Kelly, is preparing to leave on the next shuttle launch, which has been delayed until early next week. That shuttle will also carry Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori to the space station.

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AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this story.