NASA: Discovery successfully docks with space station

Space shuttle hooks up with international orbiter and starts eight-day mission there

The space shuttle Discovery successfully docked with the International Space Station at 5:20 EDT this afternoon.

With a crew of seven astronauts onboard, the space shuttle docked with the space station as they flew over western Australia, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Hatches between Discovery and the station are slated to be opened at about 7 p.m. EDT, with a traditional welcoming ceremony following later tonight.

The crews of both Discovery and the station will work together for the next eight days, moving cargo back and forth between the two spacecraft, doing three spacewalks and unloading a nearly 5,000-pound, 230-foot pair of solar arrays from the space shuttle. The solar arrays, which are made up of 32,800 solar cells, are expected to be the last set installed on the space station.

The arrays will be unloaded on Wednesday, using robotic arms on board the shuttle and the space station.

The docking comes only 14 hours after the space station had a near collision with a piece of space debris that went hurtling by early this morning.

The three-man crew on the space station had been on alert yesterday, while NASA engineers on the ground debated whether they would need to maneuver the orbiter out of the path of the debris, which was a 4-in. piece of a defunct Russian satellite. NASA didn't say this morning how close the debris came to the space station when it passed the shuttle at 3:14 a.m. Eastern time, but it was far enough away that Discovery didn't need to alter its path.

This was the second time in less than a week that a piece of space junk has endangered the space station and its crew.

Last Thursday, the two U.S. astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut were forced to seek shelter in the Soyuz TMA-13 capsule that is attached to the space station when a piece of an old rocket motor flew past. The attached capsule serves as a "lifeboat" for the crew members and could transport them back to Earth in an emergency.

The piece of debris that came near the space station last week measured only a third of an inch long. The debris that passed by this morning was 4 in. long. Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman, said in a previous interview with Computerworld that even something the size of a grain of sand could do massive damage to the space station because of the high rate of speed of such objects in in space.

The shuttle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday evening.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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