Atlantis docks with ISS

( dpa )- The US space shuttle Atlantis with the European Columbus module on board docked with the International Space Station (ISS) at 17.17 GMT on Saturday.

Columbus is to be attached to the station's Harmony capsule by German astronaut Hans Schlegel and US astronaut Rex Walheim during a six-and-a-half-hour space walk slated to start at 1435 GMT Sunday.

Shortly before docking, the orbiter near the ISS performed a nine- minute back flip allowing the crew to take hundreds of photos.

Atlantis Commander Steve Frick wanted to conduct an extra-intense inspection of a possible pull in an insulation blanket on the shuttle's right-side rocket pod which may have occurred during lift- off on Thursday.

The arrival was closely watched by European space programme engineers and officials at their headquarters. They have been waiting four years for their Columbus laboratory - Europe's largest contribution to the space station - to be installed.

The delay was triggered by the tragic 2003 loss of NASA's Columbia shuttle.

During Atlantis' two-day voyage from Earth, a second problem occurred involving a flight computer that would also be addressed upon arrival, officials said.

Atlantis was originally set to take off on December 6, but the launch was postponed several times because of technical problems with onboard fuel sensors.

The European Space Agency's capsule, built mostly by EADS-Astrium in Bremen, Germany, is intended to expand the scientific research capacity of the orbiting space station.

As the world's only heavy-lifting spacecraft in operation, the US shuttle programme is hurrying to finish space station construction so it can retire the ageing transporters in 2010. By that time, construction is expected to have doubled the station's capacity to six astronauts.

Skeptics originally wanted to write off the European lab project, which would have meant a loss of 1.3 billion dollars after the Columbia disaster, but they were swayed to support the project.

During Sunday's space walk, a giant robotic arm is to lift Columbus out of the shuttle's payload bay. Schlegel and Walheim are then to prepare the lab for docking.

The second space walk involves the replacement of a nitrogen tank assembly used to pressurize the ISS's outside cooling system. On a third scheduled space walk, Walheim and US astronaut Stan Love will transfer experiments to the exterior of Columbus and retrieve a gyroscope.

French astronaut Leopold Eyharts is to stay on the ISS for two to three months as a crew member and will become the first person to enter the Columbus module.

Russia has continued its steady traffic of spacecraft to the station. Just on Thursday, an unmanned Progress cargo carrier delivered 2.5 tons of fuel, air, water, propellant and other supplies and equipment.

After unloading, Progress modules become the station's garbage bin. On Monday, the departing trash-filled Progress undocked and is to be de-orbited and destroyed on re-entry on Friday.

Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which carry astronauts to and from the station, also continue to operate - and kept the station alive during more than two years while the US shuttle programme was closed down after the Columbia disaster.

Atlantis is to return to Earth on February 18 after an 11-day mission.

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