The crew members of the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour have begun a nearly two-week mission on the International Space Station, where they will install a $2 billion magnetic device that scientists hope will unravel some mysteries of the universe.
Endeavour docked with the orbiting laboratory Wednesday as part of the shuttle's final space journey and next-to-last mission of U.S. space agency NASA's shuttle program. After the hatches were opened, Endeavour's six astronauts - five Americans and one Italian - entered the space station and were warmly greeted by its six occupants.
NASA says the docking went smoothly. It says the Endeavour crew led by American astronaut Mark Kelly will begin the installation of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the space station on Thursday. The costly device is designed to search for anti-matter and dark matter particles that scientists say could help explain how the universe was formed.
The Endeavour astronauts also will unload spare parts for the space station and conduct four spacewalks, the first of which is scheduled for Friday.
On Monday, three of the six other astronauts on the space station will climb into a Russian Soyuz capsule to return to Earth after a five-month stay.
Endeavour lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday. It will be retired when it returns on June 1 and put on display in Los Angeles. Endeavour began its first mission in 1992 and is the youngest of the three remaining U.S. space shuttles.
NASA will end the shuttle program with the scheduled launch of Atlantis in July. The third shuttle, Discovery, returned from its final flight in March. NASA is retiring the shuttles due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop spacecraft that can travel farther into space.
After the final shuttle flight, the only way for astronauts to reach the orbiting research lab will be on Russian space capsules. Private U.S. companies hope to develop new spacecraft in the coming years that can resume the transportation of crews into space.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.