CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Astronauts aboard the International Space Station prepared to install a $2 billion particle detector outside the orbiting outpost after shuttle Endeavour arrived on Wednesday on NASA’s next-to-last shuttle mission.
Endeavour’s two-day trip to the station ended at 6:14 a.m. EDT as the spacecraft docked, bringing shuttle commander Mark Kelly back to the installation for the first time since June 2008, his last previous trip.
Kelly gently pulsed his ship’s steering jets to inch Endeavour onto a docking port on the station’s Harmony module.
After making sure the seals between the two ships were airtight, Kelly and his five crew mates left the shuttle and joined the station crew to begin a planned 12-day visit.
“It’s good to be back,” said Kelly.
Endeavour delivered the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector, designed to analyze cosmic rays for signs of dark matter, antimatter and other exotic phenomena that cannot be detected by ordinary telescopes.
Some particles in cosmic rays may hold clues to the universe’s creation.
The spectrometer, a multinational project involving 600 physicists in 16 countries, including China and Taiwan, will be attached to the outside of the station on Thursday.
The docking occurred as the Houston Chronicle reported that Kelly’s wife, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was recovering from successful brain surgery in Houston on Wednesday, a critical step in her recovery from a January gunshot wound to the head.
Giffords’ spokesman would not comment on the report.
The congresswoman was shot through the head January 8 as she met with constituents outside a Tucson grocery store. Six people died and 12 others were injured in the attack.
Giffords was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday to watch Endeavour blast off.
“If you didn’t know any of that was going on, you wouldn’t have any idea that those kind of things are going on in (Kelly’s) personal life,” NASA flight director Gary Horlacher said. “He’s doing great. I know the surgeons are keeping him informed appropriately.”
Endeavour is on its 25th and final flight. NASA plans one last cargo run to the station in July with shuttle Atlantis to end the 30-year-old shuttle program.
The shuttles are being retired due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop new spacecraft that can travel beyond the station’s orbit.
The spectrometer to be installed on Thursday previously flew a trial run on the shuttle in June 1998 and for a time lost its ride for permanent attachment to the space station amid the fallout from the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident.
Largely due to the tenacity of lead researcher Samuel Ting, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nobel physics laureate, the instrument, known as the AMS, was returned to the shuttle manifest, even as NASA prepared to end the shuttle program.
“It’s a long time coming,” said LeRoy Cain, deputy manager of the space shuttle program. “It’s a very important mission for the agency,” he added.
Endeavour also delivered a pallet of spare parts to keep the station operating after the shuttles are retired.
Once the Endeavour’s cargo is installed, the crew will turn their attention to four planned spacewalks and maintenance chores. The shuttle is due back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1.
Additional reporting by Deborah Quinn Hensel in Houston; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Todd Eastham