First parts of Japan's Kibo to launch with Endeavour

( dpa ) - NASA gave the go-ahead Friday for the next shuttle launch as early as March 11, when Endeavour is to carry the first piece of a key Japanese experimental module for installation at the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch marks one of the quickest blast-off rhythms in NASA history. Sister shuttle Atlantis just returned to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) on February 20 - part of a stepped- up schedule as the US hurries to complete construction of the International Space Station by 2010 and retire the aging space fleet.

The green light came after a two-day flight readiness review, NASA officials said. The launch windows for the 16-day, five-spacewalk mission include March 11, 12 and 17. The pause after March 12 is meant to accommodate the launch of a US navigation satellite.

The crew will include shuttle veteran Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, 54, the first Japanese astronaut to perform a spacewalk in 1997. Doi will help deliver the first piece of the long-awaited Japanese laboratory, Kibo, which when finished will be an 11.2-metre-long experiment module, described as the size of a large tour bus.

All told, Kibo - which means "hope" in Japanese - has six segments going up in the next three shuttle flights.

"If we could take it up all at one time, it would be wonderful, but it's too large," said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, in a telephone interview.

Kibo's formal name is the Japanese Experimental Module (JEM) - Japan's first human space facility. Its experiments will focus on space medicine, biology, Earth observations, material production, biotechnology and communications research, NASA said.

The experiments and systems are to be operated from the Tsukuba Space Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, just north of Tokyo.

As with the Columbus module installed in the Atlantis mission, Kibo - which means "hope" in Japanese - has been delayed by the chain reaction of caution and testing that followed the 2003 break-up of Columbia shuttle and death of all seven astronauts on board.

Other international input on the Endeavour mission will come from Canada, which is contributing a hand-like attachment for the station's robot arm on the Endeavour mission.

Asked about possible problems from debris from the disabled spy satellite blown up last week by a Navy missile, Bill Gerstenmaier, manager of space operations at NASA headquarters, said he was convinced that there was "no risk to the shuttle."

Endeavour's visit at the ISS is the longest yet for a shuttle, thanks to a newly expanded solar power grid it can now tap into.

In keeping with a busy traffic schedule, the European Space Agency is launching on March 7 an unmanned cargo carrier, the Jules Verne, intended to ferry supplies and equipment to the space station. The launch will take place from Kourou, French Guiana.

It is to dock at the station on April 3, and will be "parked" in orbit 2,000 kilometres from the station during the Endeavour mission. The Jules Verne mission will place added demands on NASA communications satellites, NASA officials said.

"There will be some times during the mission where we may not have comm with the orbiter like we normally do," Gerstenmaier was quoted as saying by spaceflightnow.com.

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