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Endeavour makes its last linkup with space station

The space shuttle Endeavour arrived for one last visit to the International Space Station on Wednesday after a two-day orbital chase.
Image: Space shuttle docked to station
A screenshot from NASA TV shows the shuttle Endeavour docked to the Harmony node of the International Space Station on Wednesday.NASA via AP
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The space shuttle Endeavour arrived for one last visit to the International Space Station on Wednesday after a two-day orbital chase.

Endeavour and its six astronauts docked at the orbiting laboratory at 6:14 a.m. ET.

"Endeavour arriving," Paolo Nespoli, an Italian astronaut on the space station, said as the shuttle connected with the outpost.

It took the crews on both the station and shuttle another two hours to check for leaks in the seal between their two spacecraft. Then the doors were opened and the shuttle astronauts floated through.

"Hey, you guys wore coordinating shirts. We didn't do that," shuttle commander Mark Kelly said as he climbed aboard the space station. "It's good to be back. It looks pretty much the same."

Kelly last saw the International Space Station in 2008 during his STS-124 shuttle mission. During Wednesday's greetings, he and the other spacefliers welcomed each other with hugs and handshakes.

Endeavour made its last liftoff Monday morning, beginning a 16-day mission to orbit. The shuttle will stay at the space station until May 29, when it will undock to begin the trek back to Earth for good. [Photos of Shuttle Endeavour's Final Launch]

Doubling the population
Kelly's crewmates aboard Endeavour include pilot Greg Johnson, Michael Fincke, Andrew Feustel, Greg Chamitoff and Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori. [Video: Endeavour's Liftoff into History]

Their addition to the space station doubles the outpost's population. Currently living aboard the station with Nespoli as part of the Expedition 27 mission are commander Dmitri Kondratyev of Russia, and flight engineers Ron Garan and Catherine Coleman of NASA, and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Andrey Borisenko.

The station residents were excited to have visitors.

"Yoo Hoo house-guests!" Garan wrote via Twitter on Tuesday.

Busy mission
The main goal of Endeavour's final mission is to deliver an astrophysics experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. At $2 billion, it's the most expensive science experiment ever flown to the station, and offers the potential to solve numerous cosmic mysteries, such as what constitutes the invisible dark matter thought to pervade the universe.

Image: Space shuttle Endeavour
The space shuttle Endeavour approaches the International Space Station shortly before Wednesday's docking.

Endeavour is also packed with spare supplies for the space station, including extra ammonia coolant, antenna systems and parts for the station's Dextre robot.

The shuttle's crew plans four busy spacewalks and a host of intensive robotic arm maneuvers to stow the parts and perform maintenance on the exterior of the station.

The graveyard shift
Endeavour's astronauts are working the overnight shift during their mission, relative to Mission Control time in Houston.

The crew woke Tuesday evening at 10:56 p.m. ET to the song "Drops of Jupiter" by the band Train. The tune was selected for Johnson by his family and radioed up to the shuttle by Mission Control.

"I love that song and I love being in space," Johnson said. He thanked his teenage son Matt for the choice, and apologized for missing his birthday, which is Thursday. "And I want to say that's a perfect way to start an exciting rendezvous day!"

Backflip in space
Early Tuesday, the astronauts spent their first full workday in space conducting a detailed inspection of their orbiter's heat shield tiles to check for any damage that might have been suffered during launch.

So far, the sensitive tiles appear to be in good shape to protect the shuttle from the fiery heat of atmospheric re-entry.

"Preliminary assessment is it looks really good so far," LeRoy Cain, head of Endeavour's mission management team, said during a news briefing Tuesday. "We're not tracking any issues as far as that's concerned."

Another check of the heat shield will be available soon, when Mission Control has a chance to analyze high-resolution photos taken of the shuttle's underbelly as it approached the station.

When Endeavour was about 600 feet (180 meters) below the space station, Kelly steered the shuttle through a backflip that exposed the orbiter's heat shield to the station, allowing astronauts there to snap hundreds of detailed images. The operation is called the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver.

Analysis of the photos should be complete in the coming days.

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