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Monday, June 2, 2008

Space shuttle carries Japanese lab into orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space shuttle Discovery blasted off a seaside launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday to deliver Japan's huge new research laboratory to the International Space Station.

The start of NASA's 123rd shuttle mission was as smooth as they come, with no technical glitches and no weather issues as the countdown clock ticked down to 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT), the moment when Earth's rotation positioned the shuttle for its most direct path to the orbiting space station.

The shuttle's twin booster rockets roared to life, joining the ship's three hydrogen-burning main engines to catapult the 4.5 million pound (2.04 million kg) ship into the air. The load was especially hefty, with Japan's Kibo lab tipping the scales at more than 16 tons.

"While we all tend to live for today, Kibo will give us hope for tomorrow," said shuttle commander Mark Kelly. "Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth."

Kibo, a complex that cost Japan about $2 billion to manufacture, is being installed aboard the space station in three flights. The elaborate complex includes a storage chamber, launched in March, the main lab aboard Discovery and an outdoor porch slated to fly next year.

The main segment is a 37-foot-(11-metre-) by 15 foot (4.6 meter) cylinder that took up much of the shuttle's 50-foot (15-metre) cargo bay.

Japan kept its laboratory intact throughout several space station redesigns, opting for a large complex to make sure there was plenty of room for its own ambitious science program as well as those of the station's other partner nations.

The United States is entitled to half of Kibo's lab space in exchange for building and operating the station and launching the Japanese hardware.

The Kibo complex is as big as a tour bus and eventually will be outfitted with 23 refrigerator-sized racks, 10 of which will be devoted to science investigations.

SCIENCE AND CULTURE

In addition to fluid physics experiments, biomedical research and other microgravity studies, Japan plans a host of cultural activities aboard Kibo, such as dance, art and sculpture.

"We're interested in creating a new art expression in space," Junichiro Shimizu, an official with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said in an interview.

Kibo's installation is the main focus of Discovery's planned 14-day mission. Most of that time will be spent at the space station, which is in need of some maintenance and repair services.

In addition to adding a third research lab, astronauts plan to replace a nitrogen tank that pressurizes the station's cooling system and inspect and clean a metal ring that is part of the station's solar power system.

The ring was contaminated by metal shards and is causing vibrations when it spins a pair of solar wing panels to track the sun for power. NASA is babying the system until repairs can be made to prevent additional damage.

Discovery is also carrying a new pump for the space station's toilet, which needs to be manually flushed several times a day. Until the new commode is installed, the three-member station crew will be free to use the shuttle's toilet, NASA space flight chief Bill Gerstenmaier said.

The Discovery crew, commanded by Mark Kelly, includes lead spacewalker Mike Fossum and five rookies in space: pilot Kenneth Ham, flight engineer Ronald Garan, lead robotic arm operator Karen Nyberg, Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and space station flight engineer Gregory Chamitoff, who will swap places with NASA's Garrett Reisman.

NASA has seven missions planned to complete construction of the $100 billion space station and two resupply flights before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. The agency also plans to fly a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope in October.

(Editing by Jim Loney and Todd Eastham)

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