US shuttle Atlantis lifts off for final journey

The shuttle blasted off at 2.20 pm on a tower of flame, Xinhua reported, citing US space agency NASA. The two booster rockets, which account for 80 per cent of the shuttle's lift during takeoff, peeled away as planned about two minutes and five seconds after the launch. They fell back toward the Atlantic Ocean, where they will land under parachutes and be subsequently retrieved and reused. They are equipped with cameras to record the performance of Atlantis' external tank and any foam loss seen during Atlantis' ascent.

Atlantis' 12-day mission will deliver the Russian-built Mini Research Module-1 that will provide additional storage space and a new docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. It will be permanently attached to the bottom port of the station's Zarya module and will carry important hardware on its exterior, including a radiator, airlock and a European robotic arm.

Atlantis will also deliver additional station hardware stored inside a cargo carrier. Three spacewalks are planned to stage spare components outside the station, including six spare batteries, a Ku-band antenna and spare parts for the Canadian Dextre robotic arm. NASA astronaut Ken Ham commands an all-veteran flight crew: Pilot Tony Antonelli, and Mission Specialists Michael Good, Garrett Reisman, Piers Sellers and Steve Bowen.

This is the scheduled final voyage for Atlantis, which has flown 31 missions since it was put into service in 1985. It will have one final assignment: remain on standby in case the last shuttle crew needs a rescue. "On behalf of all the manufacturing, processing and flight launch teams who worked on Atlantis since March of 1980, we wish you good luck and have a little fun up there," launch director Mike Leinbach said just ahead of the liftoff.

Only two shuttle flights remain after Atlantis' flight. Discovery is targeted for launch in September with spare parts and equipment. Endeavour is due to launch in November carrying a $2- billion, multinational particle detector known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. 

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