Shuttle Atlantis takes off for ISS

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Shuttle Atlantis takes off for ISS

Jun 9, 2007, 4:03 GMT

Washington - The Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off Friday evening from Cape Canaveral, Florida lighting the blue sky with a trail of fire as it headed for an 11-day mission to the International Space Station.

It left the launch pad on time at 7:38 pm (2338 GMT), after a three-month delay to repair more than 2,000 dents left on the fuel tank by heavy hail in February.

Despite concerns before the launch that weather at two emergency landing sites in Europe could delay the start, the shuttle was able to take off without a hitch in what one NASA official called a 'beautiful night for a launch.'

According to the NASA control centre in Houston, the first minutes of the flight went as expected and all systems were operating normally. Eight minutes into its flight Atlantis' main engines shut off as planned and it entered into orbit around the Earth, it then jettisoned its external fuel tank.

The crew had photographed the tank to be sure any pieces that may have fallen off did not damage the shuttle. Foam that fell from an external fuel tank damaged the Space Shuttle Columbia, which exploded re-entering the Earth's atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Shuttle programme director Wayne Hale said early examinations revealed no damage to the shuttle. One piece of foam broke off from the tank late in the launch, but it did not hit shuttle, he said in a post-launch press conference.

The tank 'has performed in a magnificent manner' despite having undergone repairs to fix hail damage, Hale said.

'This bodes well for the future as we look forward to the completion of the space station,' Hale said.

The seven-member crew will dock with the International Space Station on Sunday evening. One crew member, Clayton Anderson, will relieve Sunita Williams, who will be coming home on the return flight after serving at the station since December. He will remain on the ISS until October. Williams set a record for time spent on space walks by a woman.

Atlantis' main mission is to deliver the next pair of 17.5-ton solar collector panels to be installed during three spacewalks, the first slated for Monday.

The flight is the first of four shuttle missions this year. The next flights are to take place in August, October and December.

The current push is to expand electricity supply at the space station to pave the way for December's installation of the European module Columbus. That will in turn set the stage for installation of Japan's research module, Kibo.

The new solar panels are to double power at the station by 2010, when construction on the space station is to be finished. Final occupancy is to be expanded to six instead of just three full time residents.

© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur