Shedding new light on universe

 President Barack Obama and his family will be at the Kennedy Space Center to watch Endeavour blast off at 3:47 pm EDT (2047 GMT) in what will be the second-to-last flight of space agency NASA’s 30-year shuttle program, which is being phased out this year.

Watching too will be US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who is recovering from a near-fatal shooting in January and whose husband, Mark Kelly, commands the six-member Endeavour crew on its two-week maintenance mission to the International Space Station.

“It is exciting to have the special guests,” said NASA’s Jeremy Graeber.

But he added this would not be a distraction to the 134th shuttle mission, which will go ahead at the scheduled time if technical and weather conditions allow. “We’re very aware of the fact that we’ve got a job to go do,” Graeber said.

Adding to the media buzz surrounding Endeavour’s final launch is the $2 billion device it will be carrying which scientists hope can shed new light on knowledge of the universe by studying its little-known “dark matter”.

The seven-ton Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer or AMS will analyze particles in high-energy cosmic rays, the first detailed look at this type of matter in space.

Doctors have given the recuperating Giffords a green light to attend the shuttle launch in Florida. She was shot in the head on January 8 outside a Tucson, Arizona, grocery store when a gunman opened fire, killing six and injuring 13 people.

The trip to see the departure of her husband and his colleagues marks Giffords’ first extended outing from hospital during her recovery. She was due in Florida on Wednesday.

After the shuttle launch, Giffords will return to Houston to continue her rehabilitation, “It's something that she’s been looking forward to for a long time,” said husband Kelly, who rejoined the crew in early February.

Two days after Endeavour's launch, the shuttle is expected to arrive at the orbiting space station for a visit lasting 10-12 days. Sixteen nations, including Russia, are partners in the $100 bn space station project.

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