Space shuttle Discovery blasts off in US

The United States space shuttle Discovery blasted off on a pillar of fire on Tuesday, soaring above Florida marshlands toward a rendezvous in two days with the International Space Station.

Discovery‘s 14-day mission kicks off a two-month refurbishment of the $100-billion outpost that prepares the way for Europe’s first permanent laboratory in orbit.

The shuttle roared through a partly cloudy sky at 15h38 GMT, defying predictions by meteorologists that clouds and rain could force a delay. A build-up of ice on the external fuel tank, which could have fallen off and hit the shuttle, was ruled out as a threat by Nasa engineers.

“I’d like to wish you good luck, Godspeed and have a little fun up there,” launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew shortly before lift-off.

The shuttle rode atop a towering plume of smoke as it arced over the Atlantic Ocean, accelerating toward a top speed of 28 400km/h once in orbit.

A shockwave rolled across the marshlands, scattering birds into the sky and the rumble from its engines and booster rockets shook the Earth for kilometres around.

During Discovery‘s flight, its astronauts will install a new module on the space station that will anchor the long-awaited Columbus laboratory, the European Space Agency’s main contribution to the project.—Reuters

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