NASA's Endeavour set for final space flight

Space shuttle is prepped to launch on its 25th and last mission, as shuttle program winds down

Barring bad weather, NASA's space shuttle Endeavour is prepped and ready to blast off on its final journey into space this afternoon.

The Endeavour is loaded with 500,000 gallons of fuel, and its six-man crew of astronauts is preparing to climb aboard. NASA has scheduled the shuttle's launch for 3:47 p.m. Eastern time.

Workers inside NASA's Mission Control are keeping a close eye on the weather, though. The space agency reported this morning that a storm cell is rapidly moving through the Kennedy Space Center where Endeavour waits on its launch pad. Once that storm passes, forecasters are predicting a 70% chance of favorable weather at the scheduled launch time.

However, there are still concerns that low cloud ceilings and high crosswinds could cause problems for the launch.

Endeavour is due to embark on a 15-day mission to the International Space Station, where it will deliver supplies, materials for experiments, and equipment, including two S-band communication antennas, a robotic computer and a spare arm for the station's Dextre robot.

The shuttle also will be carrying a piece of equipment that will search space for some of the biggest mysteries of physics -- antimatter and dark matter. The AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) particle detector will be installed and operated on the space station.

Built by an international team, the $2 billion AMS is designed to track incoming charged particles, such as protons, electrons and atomic nuclei. By studying these cosmic rays with its highly sensitive monitors, the machine should be able to identify a single particle of antimatter or dark matter among a billion other particles.

Scientists are hoping the information will help them better understand the origin of the universe.

And while getting that particular machine in place is of great importance to scientists, the shuttle's mission is a historic one for NASA.

This will be the second to last shuttle that is scheduled to ever go into space before NASA retires the entire fleet. The space shuttle Atlantis, scheduled to make its final launch June 28, will be the last shuttle to travel into space.

Endeavour, the youngest shuttle in NASA's fleet, was first launched on May 7, 1992. It has had a storied career. Among other things, it carried the astronauts who conducted the first servicing mission on the Hubble space telescope. It also made a trip to the MIR space station. This will be its 12th trip to the International Space Station.

According to NASA, at the time of Endeavour's scheduled landing, the shuttle will have traveled more than 100 million miles during 25 flights and it will have spent more than 294 days in space.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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