Discovery heads for its final frontier

The US space shuttle Discovery soared into orbit yesterday on a trail of fire, heading for the International Space Station on its 39th and final mission.

Discovery is carrying a crew of six, plus a new module for the ISS - the Italian-built Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) Leonardo - the Express Logistics Carrier 4, and a humanoid robot called Robonaut-2.

The mission, codenamed STS-133, almost had to be postponed yet again due to problems with the USAF's range safety computers. The shuttle eventually lifted off with just four seconds of its 10 minute launch window remaining.

Discovery is NASA's oldest surviving shuttle, and has travelled more than 150 million miles since its first blast-off in 1984. It has carried more than 180 and was also the shuttle that took the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.

Docking with the ISS is planned for Flight Day 3.

The launch followed the yesterday afternoon's successful automated docking of the European ATV space freighter Johannes Kepler with the ISS. The unmanned ATV was launched last week from the ESA spaceport in French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.

See next month's E&T Magazine for more on Leonardo, the Johannes Kepler, and building the International Space Station. 

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