The American space shuttle Endeavour has lifted off on its final mission.
With the earth pointing in the optimum direction the orbiter left Kennedy Space Centre in Florida for the last time, heading for the International Space Station.
At the end of this, Endeavour’s 25th mission, the vessel will retire leaving just one more flight for the shuttle family, its sister-ship Atlantis, which is due to have its swansong in July.
On board is a veteran crew of six – five Americans and the Italian Roberto Vittori.
The crew’s commander is Mark Kelly, a 47-year-old US Navy captain who saw action during the Gulf War. He is married to the Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was the target of an assassination attempt in January.
Also on board is an instrument to study dark matter and anti-matter. It is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometre, or AMS-2, the result of co-operation between 16 countries.
The man charged with transferring the 1.4-billion euro particle physics experiment is Roberto Vittori. He has been to the ISS before but not on the space shuttle.
“I fly on this as an astronaut of the European Space Agency and I look forward to see AMS installed to the International Space Station,” he said at a pre-flight news conference.
NASA flight commander Mark Kelly added: “The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is going to be one of the premier science experiments of the 21st century, we hope. AMS could be teaching us things about the universe that are completely unexpected.”
In a little over two weeks Endeavour is scheduled to touch down, and once Atlantis does the same thing in July, the US will rely solely on Russian Soyuz craft to ferry between the ISS and the Earth.
Once the shuttles are grounded for good they will have made 135 flights.