Shuttle Atlantis reaches space station on last trip

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The space shuttle Atlantis arrived at the International Space Station Sunday to deliver a new Russian module and spare parts needed to keep the outpost operational after two final shuttle visits this year.

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Atlantis commander Ken Ham inched his 100-tonne spaceship into a docking port at 10:28 a.m. EDT as the shuttle and the station soared around the planet at 17,500 mph.

“Welcome to station,” flight engineer Soichi Noguchi radioed to the Atlantis crew.

Atlantis carries a Russian module called Rassvet -- Russian for “dawn” -- a combination research lab and docking port for Russian and European capsules.

The United States picked up the transportation costs for the module as part of a barter agreement among the 16 nations participating in the $100 billion station project.

The shuttle also is delivering an equipment rack filled with fresh batteries for the station’s solar power system, a spare Ku-band communications antenna and a work platform for the station’s Canadian-built robot arm. All the gear is to be installed by the shuttle crew during a trio of spacewalks this week.

Atlantis blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Friday for what is expected to be its final mission before retirement. Sister ships Discovery and Endeavour are scheduled to make their final flights to the space station later this year and then NASA plans to end its shuttle program.

An inspection of the ship’s heat shield Saturday -- a routine safety check implemented after the 2003 Columbia accident -- was hampered by a snagged cable in a boom used to fly a laser imager over the ship’s wings and nose cap.

The astronauts used a backup, visible-light camera, but ran out of time to complete the survey. To compensate, NASA added a third space station crew member to the usual two-member team assigned to take pictures of the shuttle’s heat shield with high-speed telephoto lenses prior to docking.

“Once we get all that imagery on the ground, the team will determine if we need to go get additional information or views of Atlantis before we’re ready to declare the heat shield ready to go,” flight director Mike Sarafin said.

Atlantis is due to land at the Kennedy Space Center on May 26.

Editing by Jane Sutton and Stacey Joyce