US shuttle Discovery links up with space station

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HOUSTON, Oct 25 (Reuters) US space shuttle Discovery linked up with the International Space Station on a mission to prepare the orbital outpost for new European and Japanese laboratories.

With shuttle commander Pamela Melroy at the controls, Discovery eased up to the station more than 200 miles (320 km) above Earth and latched onto a docking port at 1830 hrs IST.

In a naval tradition used on the station, commander Peggy Whitson rang a ship's bell on the outpost in welcome.

''Discovery arriving,'' she said.

The three-member space station crew was to greet the seven Discovery astronauts when they opened the hatches between the spacecraft about two hours after docking.

Whitson is the first female station commander and Melroy the second to command a shuttle, following now-retired astronaut Eileen Collins.

The docking completed a two-day pursuit by Discovery after it launched on Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center at Florida.

On board is the Italian-built Harmony module, a 24-foot-(seven-metre-) long cylinder that will be installed on the station to serve as the berthing port for Europe's Columbus and Japan's Kibo modules.

Columbus is scheduled for transport to the 0 billion space station on a shuttle flight in December, followed by the multipiece Kibo starting early in 2008.

The other key task for the shuttle crew is to relocate an 18-tonne solar power unit to a new place on the station's structural backbone.

Discovery astronauts will perform five spacewalks during their stay, which is scheduled to end early on November 4, two days before the ship returns to Florida.

One of the spacewalks will be devoted to testing a technique to repair the shuttle's heat shield while in orbit.

NASA yesterday said Discovery's wing and nose heat shields looked to be in good shape after a lengthy inspection with sensors on a remotely maneuvered robot arm.

There was concern pre-flight about slight degradation in part of the shield, but NASA managers decided it was not a threat and ordered the flight to go on.

Before docking, Discovery, with the sun glinting off the tin can-shaped Harmony in its cargo bay, performed a slow backflip 600 feet (182 metres) away from the station so the station crew could snap photographs of its belly.

NASA engineers will pore over the photos and the data collected from Wednesday's scan to check more closely for any heat shield damage suffered during launch.

Safety inspections are now routine shuttle procedure after Columbia broke apart during the fiery descent to Earth in 2003.

Investigators blamed the accident on a hole in the wing heat shield that was caused by launch debris and went undetected.

Video from Tuesday's launch showed several breakaway fragments of fuel tank insulation foam, but none believed to have damaged the fragile shield.

The US space agency is pressing to finish space station construction ahead of a 2010 deadline to retire the shuttle fleet.

REUTERS SYU MIR RAI1956

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