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Discovery space shuttle blasts off on final mission

Reuters/Pierre Ducharme

The US space shuttle Discovery was launched on its final mission on Thursday. It blasted off from Cape Canaveral at 21h50 UT and is heading for the International Space Station.

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Nasa is shutting down its space shuttle programme, meaning US astronauts will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz space capsule for transport to the orbiting International Space Station.

The Discovery was supposed to be launched in November, but was delayed because of cracks in its external fuel tank. In January, engineers decided to reinforce the aluminium brackets with small metal strips called radius blocks.

The crew plans to deliver a Permanent Multipurpose Module, with extra storage space and an area for experiments, as well as some spare parts and the Express Logistic Carrier, an external platform for large equipment.

The shuttle will also bring the first humanoid robot to the International Space Station. The Robonaut 2 will become a permanent fixture on the space station.

Discovery’s first flight was in 1984. The other two shuttles remaining in the fleet, Atlantis and Endeavour, are scheduled for their final missions later this year.

Endeavour is set for its final takeoff on 19 April and Atlantis is scheduled for 28 June, though funding for Atlantis remains in question.

The mission is being led by commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe and astronauts Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, Steve Bowen and Nicole Stott. Bowen replaced Tim Kopra after Kopra had a bicycle accident in January.

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