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NASA greenlights shuttle, gets on with ISS construction

Must be home for the new year, though

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NASA's next Shuttle mission is to blast off next Thursday, the space agency confirmed yesterday.

The mission, which will last for 12 days, will see the NASA astronauts undertake yet more of the much delayed construction work on the International Space Station. This time they will "install a new segment of the station's girder-like truss and activate the station's permanent, complex power and cooling systems", NASA says.

The launch has been given the go ahead despite concerns that any delays to either the launch or landing schedule could mean the Shuttle would be in orbit over the end of the year, leaving it vulnerable to a "millennium bug" style date-change software glitch.

The onboard computers are not set up to switch to a new "Day One" when the year ends, but the ground computers are. If it is still in orbit over the new year, the computer could be reset, but that would mean the Shuttle would be flying blind, without navigation updates or vehicle control. Not ideal.

At the end of the mission, ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter will return to Earth aboard Discovery. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams will stay behind for a six month tour of duty on the space station. ®

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