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NASA fuels up Discovery for tank-tests

One step closer to lift-off

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Space Shuttle Discovery is moving a step closer to returning to flight today. Its fuel tanks will be filled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, so that engineers can evaluate the performance of the redesigned tanks under "cryo-load".

The shuttle is now sitting on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Centre, waiting for its launch window, opening on 15 May. The Discovery will be the first shuttle to fly since the loss of the Columbia, and all her crew, back in February 2003.

The shuttle has undergone an extensive redesign in the last two years to meet with stringent safety conditions for a return to flight. The fuel tanks' external insulation foam - a falling chunk of which was responsible for the damage to Columbia that led to its mid-air break-up - has been replaced with electric heaters. One part of the test will be to see how effective these electric heaters are at preventing ice from building up on the outside of the tanks.

The ground crews will also be monitoring the performance of the orbiter, solid rocket boosters and ground system while the tank is filled with the ultra-cold liquids. They will also take the opportunity to give the main propulsion system the once over, NASA said. The launch team will also be dropping in to inspect the hardware.

The whole shebang is slated to be broadcast on NASA TV from 05:30 EDT (New York Time). You can watch it on the web here. ®

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