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Space Shuttle Discovery set to launch today at 4:50pm Eastern (3:50pm Nashville)

February 24, 2011

Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Discovery is ready for launch later today (4:50pm Eastern/3:50 Central) on its final trip to space. This mission has been delayed extensively- it was originally scheduled to launch in November of last year, but fuel leaks and then tiny cracks discovered on the external fuel tank caused major delays. The shuttle had to be returned to the massive vehicle assembly building (VAB) for repairs that took several months. But so far all is good for the launch today. The shuttle is carrying an additional storage module (essentially a storage closet in space) to the ISS, along with an external logistics platform and a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2. Robonaut 2, known as R2 (ha!) is basically an experiment to allow engineers to determine how the robot will work in space, and how to best control it from inside the ISS. The end goal is to have a humanoid robot that can venture outside the space station and assist spacewalking astronauts with repairs and upgrades. The robot will be controlled by an astronaut inside the space station via some sort of virtual reality-like interface.

As I said, this is the last flight of Discovery. The only confirmed remaining flight is that of Endeavour, scheduled for launch in April. This mission will carry a very important piece of scientific equipment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS. The AMS will help physicists answer some of the most daunting questions in cosmology. An additional flight of Atlantis is likely, though not 100% confirmed. It would launch in June and be the absolute final flight of the Space Shuttle program.

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