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Atlantis lands safely, Sunita returns

Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams returns home after a record-breaking six months in space.

world Updated: Jun 23, 2007 14:22 IST

US space shuttle Atlantis landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Friday after a fiery descent through the Earth's atmosphere that capped a two-week mission to the International Space Station.

The shuttle with seven astronauts on board touched down at Edwards at 1.19 am (1949 GMT), shimmering in the heat and sending up a plume of brownish-gray dust as its rear wheels hit the 15,000-foot (4,570-metre) runway.

"Welcome back. Congratulations on a great mission," astronaut Tony Antonelli radioed Atlantis commander Frederick Sturckow from Mission Control in Houston as the spaceship's parachute billowed out in the thin desert air.

Flight directors had hoped skies would clear for one of two landing opportunities on Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the shuttle's home port, but dense clouds and rain prevented that.

Conditions at its back-up landing site in the Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles, were far more favourable with clear skies and barely a trace of the winds that had sparked concern about touching down at Edwards earlier.

NASA had to forego two landing opportunities in Florida on Thursday as well because of bad weather. The shuttle cannot land in rain because it could damage the thousands of black ceramic tiles that protect its underside from the searing heat of re-entry through the atmosphere.

NASA would have preferred to land at Kennedy to save the expense and time required to piggyback the shuttle back across country on a modified Boeing 747.

Power-producing solar panels

The shuttle had been on a two-week construction mission to the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that is a little more than half finished.

The shuttle carted a third pair of power-producing solar wing panels to the space station and its crew conducted four spacewalks to install them, fold up another older wing that will be moved to a new location and install equipment needed to prepare for the arrival of additional research laboratories.

The astronauts also were called upon to repair a hole in the heat shield on Atlantis, which arrived in orbit with a corner of an insulating blanket torn loose.

NASA has been meticulous about scouring the shuttles for damage once they reach orbit since a heat shield failure triggered the destruction of the shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the deaths of seven astronauts.

The crew also delivered a new astronaut to the station. Clayton Anderson replaced station flight engineer Sunita Williams, who is returning home aboard Atlantis after a record-breaking six months in space.

Williams surpassed Shannon Lucid's 188-day mission for the longest spaceflight by a woman.

NASA needs to fly 12 more construction missions to finish building the station before the end of 2010, when the shuttle fleet is due to be retired.

The US space agency also would like to squeeze in two resupply missions and a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Atlantis' mission at the space station was overshadowed by a major computer breakdown in the Russian modules that could have led to the station being temporarily abandoned. Work was continuing on the station computers.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral)