The US space shuttle Endeavour has docked with the International Space Station (ISS) hundreds of miles above Southeast Asia.
The three residents of the ISS greeted the seven astronauts with hugs as they boarded the orbiting space station.
During 12 days on the ISS, the crew will unload and fit the first section of a Japanese space laboratory.
In the course of five planned spacewalks, they will also install a pair of robotic arms built by Canada.
The first spacewalk will take place on Friday, when astronauts will start work fitting the Canadian-built arms.
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.
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
The two arms, 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.
Astronauts also plan to test a heat-shield repair technique developed after the 2003 Columbia accident.
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.
Dextre will do work on the exterior of the station
The ATV was launched from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana last Saturday. It will orbit near the station during the shuttle's visit, ready to move into position in early April.
Mission controllers boosted Jules Verne into a higher orbit on Wednesday, bringing the craft to an altitude of 303km (188 miles), some 40km (25 miles) below that of the ISS.
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.