Discovery shuttle launched


Washington : NASA’s Discovery space shuttle was launched Monday for a scheduled 13-day mission, one of the last remaining four flights for the ageing shuttle fleet.

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Discovery took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6.21 a.m. with seven astronauts on board. The shuttle will be bringing them to the International Space Station (ISS).

After Monday, the spectacle of a huge shuttle rocketing into the sky will happen only three more times. The US space agency NASA’s goal is to retire the shuttles by September, but routine delays due to weather and technical problems could put the final flight into early 2011.

Discovery’s scheduled 13-day mission offers one more chance for the orbiter to prove its worth as the work-horse of the ISS. The shuttle will carry more than 12 tonnes of equipment.

Because much of the load is destined for research, NASA decided to dub the mission “Experiment Express”.

NASA will load up its Italian-built Leonardo container with a small fitness studio for the space station crew, an observation module with cameras and sensors and numerous scientific instruments for experiments.

On arrival at the space station, planned for Wednesday, Leonardo will be removed from the shuttle and parked outside for unloading during the nine days Discovery is to spend docked with the station.

Three spacewalks are planned, each for more than six hours. The tasks include detaching a Japanese experimental apparatus now mounted on the outside frame of the ISS and bringing it inside.

Discovery is to return to earth April 18.

After the shuttle programme ends, the only transport for astronauts to the space station will be Russia’s Soyuz capsules. Russia also operates unmanned cargo spacecraft separately from the human transports, but they can carry only a fraction of the shuttle’s.

On Friday, Soyuz launched from the Russian Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with one US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts. The crew of three docked Sunday with the ISS to begin six months on the space station.

The shuttle missions are carrying as many heavy replacement parts and instruments as possible to the space station.

The decades-old shuttles have been considered a risky proposition for years.

Chronic problems with fuel tanks and sensors have often delayed takeoff of the three remaining craft – Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour. Two shuttles, Colombia and Challenger, exploded during re-entry and take-off, respectively, killing all astronauts on board.