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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2008, 06:31 GMT
Endeavour launched from Florida
Shuttle lifts off (Image: Nasa)
Seven astronauts are onboard
A US space shuttle has lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, carrying astronauts and equipment bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

The shuttle launched in darkness at 0228 local time (0628 GMT). The 16-day flight is the longest shuttle mission to the ISS.

Endeavour is taking the first section of a Japanese space lab to the ISS, as construction work continues.

The seven-strong crew will also install a two-armed robot built in Canada.

During 12 days spent on the ISS, the shuttle crew will unload a storage and equipment module for Japan's space laboratory, Kibo, helped by the three long-term residents of the space station.

JAPANESE KIBO LABORATORY
Cost $2.4bn (1.2bn) to build
Kibo is Japanese for "hope"
Main section launches in May
The final part will fly next year
They will also fit a pair of robotic arms to the station's crane. The Canadian-built arms, which are each 3.35m (11ft) long, are designed to fit and service components as small as a phone book or as large as a telephone booth.

Working like a mechanic in space, the robot, known as Dextre, can pivot at the waist. Its shoulders support two identical arms with complex joints that allow for freedom of movement.

Astronauts also plan to test a heat-shield repair technique designed after the 2003 Columbia accident, during one of five planned space walks.

Dextre. Image: The Canadian Space Agency (http://www.space.gc.ca)
Dextre will do work on the exterior of the station
The Japanese lab complex is the latest research addition to the $100bn (50bn) ISS project. Europe's Columbus space lab arrived last month, joining Nasa's own research base at the station, a module called Destiny that has been in space since 2001.

After Endeavour leaves the ISS, Europe's first cargo ship, an unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle called Jules Verne, will get its chance to dock.

The ATV was launched from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana on Saturday night. It will orbit near the station during the shuttle's visit, ready to move into position in early April.

After Endeavour's flight there are only 11 shuttle flights before the orbiters are retired.

Preliminary launch dates for shuttles in the rest of 2008:

  • 25 May, Discovery: to loft the second and main component of the Japanese Kibo lab together with its exterior robot arm
  • 28 August, Atlantis: a flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope
  • 16 October, Endeavour: a cargo flight to the ISS using the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module in Endeavour's payload bay
  • 4 December, Discovery: taking up the fourth starboard "backbone" segment for the ISS; and the fourth set of solar arrays and batteries

Because Atlantis will not be able to reach the space station if it gets into trouble, or is damaged, on its Hubble flight, the Endeavour orbiter will be made ready on the pad for a rescue mission in case it is needed.

Launch dates for the remaining seven flights in 2009/10 are under review. The crew of the space station is expected to rise from three to six in mid-2009.



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Space shuttle blasts off



SEE ALSO
Space truck orbits despite fault
10 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Mission Guide: Jules Verne
05 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Atlantis ends its Columbus voyage
20 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature
Columbus: Sky-high science
06 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature

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