Shuttle Endeavour set for launch
A US space shuttle is set to leave Earth on Tuesday carrying equipment bound for the International Space Station (ISS). ( BBC )
Endeavour will take the first part of a Japanese space lab to the ISS during the 16-day mission.
The seven-strong crew will install a two-armed robot designed to carry out repairs outside the orbiting spaceship.
The shuttle is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 0228 local time (0628 GMT).
Endeavour, which flew its first mission in 1992, is expected to spend 12 days at the ISS.
During that time, the shuttle crew will unload a storage and equipment module for Japan's space laboratory, Kibo, helped by the three long-term residents of the space station.
They will also fit a pair of robotic arms to the station's crane. The Canadian-built arms, which are each 3.35m (11ft) long, are designed to fit and service components as small as a phone book or as large as a telephone booth.
Working like a mechanic in space, the robot, known as Dextre, can pivot at the waist. Its shoulders support two identical arms with complex joints that allow for freedom of movement.
Astronauts also plan to test a heat-shield repair technique designed after the 2003 Columbia accident, during one of five planned space walks.
The Japanese lab complex is the latest research addition to the $100bn ISS project. Europe's Columbus space lab arrived last month, joining Nasa's own research base at the station, a module called Destiny that has been in space since 2001.
After Endeavour leaves the ISS, Europe's first cargo ship, an unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle called Jules Verne, will get its chance to dock.
The ATV was launched from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana on Saturday night. It will orbit near the station during the shuttle's visit, ready to move into position in early April.
After Endeavour's flight there are only 11 shuttle flights before the orbiters are retired.
Preliminary launch dates for shuttles in the rest of 2008:
25 May, Discovery: to loft the second and main component of the Japanese Kibo lab together with its exterior robot arm
28 August, Atlantis: a flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope
16 October, Endeavour: a cargo flight to the ISS using the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module in Endeavour's payload bay
4 December, Discovery: taking up the fourth starboard "backbone" segment for the ISS; and the fourth set of solar arrays and batteries.
Because Atlantis will not be able to reach the space station if it gets into trouble, or is damaged, on its Hubble flight, the Endeavour orbiter will be made ready on the pad for a rescue mission in case it is needed.
Launch dates for the remaining seven flights in 2009/10 are under review. The crew of the space station is expected to rise from three to six in mid-2009.