NASA space shuttle Atlantis fueled for last ride to International Space Station

NASA’ s Atlantis to deliver key ISS upgrades

NASA has filled its space shuttle Atlantis' external tank with about a half million gallons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen in preparation for the space shuttle's lift-off this afternoon on what will likely be its final space flight.  

At Launch Pad 39A, NASA is also readying the climate-controlled White Room outside Atlantis' crew access hatch and engineers will conduct a detailed survey of the shuttle and the pad structure, checking for ice buildups or other potential hazards, NASA said. 

21 critical future NASA missions 

Shuttle Atlantis' 12-day mission to the International Space Station will among other tasks deliver the 23ft, 17,147lb Russian-built Mini Research Module-1 that will add storage space and a new docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.

It will also carry spare portions of the European Space Agency's Robotic Arm and the first Russian payloads to use the arm.

The European Robotic Arm (ERA) will be the second 'intelligent' robot arm for the International Space Station (ISS). The first, used extensively for ISS assembly for almost 10 years, is the venerable Canadian Canadarm-2. 

The second arm, for launch in 2012, will be based on Russia's Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), from where it can 'walk' to other locations. The complete operational ERA will be launched in 2012 by a Proton rocket, attached to the MLM.

Once complete the ERA will include two "dexterous hands," attaching the arm to the ISS and routing power and command links - two wrists, two limbs and an elbow joint, together with electronics and cameras. Both ends can act as either a hand or the base.  The ERA can maneuver around the ISS under its own control, hand-over-hand between base points. Astronauts can control it from inside or outside the ISS, the ESA says. 

The ERA will be used to service the Russian segment of the ISS and to transfer small payloads directly to space via the MLM's special airlock. 

In addition, there are three spacewalks 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 said. 

After Atlantis there are only two space shuttle launches planned.  But there have been changes as NASA has decided to delay one of the shuttle launches. 

Space shuttle Discovery' mission currently should begin Sept. 16.  Its nine day mission will bring the Express Logistics Carrier 4 and other spare components to the ISS. 

The space shuttle Endeavour mission originally slated for July has been pushed off until November. NASA said the delay is to accommodate a new particle detector for an extended ISS operation.  The update to the particle detector should enable it to function through 2020, which NASA now says it will support the ISS. In his recent address to NASA this month President Obama said he wanted to extend ISS support at least five years beyond the current 2015 end date.  

The space agency last week said it was seeking research ideas from private entities to want to do research on board the ISS. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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