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Shuttle's blastoff due this morning

UNITED States space shuttle Discovery was prepared for launch yesterday, on a mission to finish installing the International Space Station's power system and deliver Japan's first live-aboard crew member.

Blastoff is scheduled for 9:20am today, Beijing time, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Meteorologists predicted a 90-percent chance that the weather would be good for launch.

The mission has been delayed a month due to safety concerns about fuel pressure gauges, but after extensive testing and studies, managers cleared the ship for flight.

The shuttle is to spend two weeks in orbit to deliver a US$300-million set of solar wing panels and a new distiller for the station's urine recycling system.

The panels are inside a 16-ton module that will complete the station's 11-segment exterior backbone.

The seven-man crew includes Japan's Koichi Wakata, a two-time shuttle veteran who will stay behind on the space station to serve as a flight engineer after the shuttle departs.

He replaces NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, who has been in orbit since November.

The station, a US$100-billion project contributed to by 16 nations, has been under construction 350 kilometers above Earth for more than a decade.

The US space agency has up to nine flights remaining to complete assembly, as well as a final servicing call to the giant Hubble Space Telescope, before it retires the shuttle fleet next year.


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