Atlantis to link up with space station, deliver lab
The space shuttle Atlantis is due to dock with the international space station this afternoon.
It's delivering the long-awaited, $2-billion European-built Columbus science lab. This is also the birthday of the space station's science chief Peggy Whitson. The shuttle is hauling up presents for her, but Whitson says the real gift is the lab.
Columbus was supposed to be launched in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of the explorer's voyage to the New World. But redesign work and contruction delays on the space station, as well as various problems for the shuttle program, have added up to a 16-year delay.
The shuttle crew has completed a post-launch safety inspection of Atlantis. A piece of foam from the external fuel tank hit it on take-off, but wasn't big enough to pose a re-entry threat.
The real work begins tomorrow. Helped by robot cranes and two spacewalkers, the 23-foot lab will be lifted from the payload bay and attached to the space station.
Columbus Module Heading For ISS Aboard Of Atlantis
On February 7, NASA's space shuttle Atlantis successfully lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying European Space Agency's most advanced laboratory, Columbus, into space. Seven astronauts are in charge of getting Columbus safe and sound to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 11-day journey before the mission had run its course.
It took a while before the space shuttle Atlantis was successfully launched - two months of continuous delays and uncertainties - but the mission finally took off on Thursday, with the destination: International Space Station. It is for the second time in seven years that the ISS gets ready to receive a science laboratory, after the U.S.-built Destiny Laboratory Module, activated in February 2001.
On February 9, the space shuttle Atlantis is set to dock with the International Space Station at 18:23 CET. The following day, the Columbus Module will be removed from the space shuttle's cargo by a robotic arm and docked to the starboard hatch of the Harmony module. Columbus will be ready to conduct experiments within hours after it has been docked.
Within the next days, several spacewalks are set to take place, the first of which will include astronaut Hans Schlegel, who will assist the manoeuvre of removing the Columbus Module from the space shuttle. Other two spacewalks will take place while Atlantis is docked to the ISS for installing external science payloads and handrails to the module.
Out of the team of seven, made up of commander of the crew and NASA astronaut Steve Frick, pilot Alan Pointdexter and mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, and also Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts from the European Space Agency, it will be the French astronaut Leopold Eyharts' mission to remain on the ISS for two more months to supervise the Columbus laboratory.
The Columbus laboratory, which is 7m long and weights 12.8 tons, will enable scientists aboard the International Space Station to conduct a series of experiments in a weightless environment on a wide range of topics, such as fluid physics, material sciences, technology, biology and life sciences, in conditions that are not possible on Earth.
After the Columbus Module will be connected to the ISS, the European Space Agency's Columbus Control Center located in the German Space Agency facility in Oberpfaffenhofen will be responsible for monitoring Columbus' activities and provide communications links with control centers from Russia and the United States.
Shuttle Day 2: Crew checks for damage
The crew of Shuttle Atlantis conducted a painstaking laser inspection of the ship's wings Friday, looking for any signs of damage from its trip into space.
Launched Thursday after two months of technical delays, the shuttle was chasing the international space station in orbit with a special delivery: Europe's $2 billion Columbus lab. The shuttle was scheduled to reach it Saturday.
But first the crew of seven astronauts had to determine whether the shuttle was damaged by at least three pieces of foam or other debris that came off the fuel tank two minutes after the liftoff.
There was no evidence that the debris hit Atlantis. But the astronauts were spending much of Friday using a laser-tipped inspection pole to examine the ship's vulnerable wings and nose. The images they gather will be beamed to the ground and thoroughly analyzed over the new few days.
The inspection has been standard procedure ever since a hole in the wing brought down Columbia in 2003, the result of a strike by a slab of fuel-tank foam.
The astronauts awoke Friday to "Book of Love" by Peter Gabriel, a dedication to French Air Force Gen. Leopold Eyharts from his wife and family.
Eyharts greeted his loved ones in English and French, saying, "I know it has been a somehow hard day for them and I want to thank them."
Eyharts will move into the space station for a little more than a month, replacing NASA astronaut Daniel Tani. He plans to help continue setting up and activating the Columbus module, Europe's primary contribution to the space station.