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'Atlantis to return to Earth Saturday at earliest'

Bad weather forced the US space agency to put off until Saturday at the earliest the return to Earth of the space shuttle Atlantis after its mission to repair the Hubble telescope.

world Updated: May 22, 2009 22:21 IST

Bad weather forced the US space agency to put off until Saturday at the earliest the return to Earth of the space shuttle Atlantis after its mission to repair the Hubble telescope.

After an initial delay for Friday and then a cancellation, NASA retargeted touchdown for a second landing opportunity Saturday at 9:16 am (1316 GMT) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"The weather would not cooperate today," a NASA spokesman said after American astronauts flying 500 kilometers (311 miles) above Florida saw what awaited them on Earth: cloudy skies, strong winds and possible thunderstorms.

Atlantis, which blasted off on May 11 with a crew of seven astronauts on mission to repair the Hubble space telescope, saw its first scheduled landing for 10:00 am (1400 GMT) delayed, before NASA canceled a second landing opportunity at 11:39 am (1539 GMT).

The final decision to cancel Friday's return was made about two hours before the shuttle was due to land.

"They have enough supplies to stay on board until Monday. But we don't like to wait until the last moment," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.

NASA has set several conditions for a landing: the cloud cover in the skies must not be more than 50 percent, visibility must be at least eight kilometers (five miles) and lateral winds must not be blowing at more than 28 kilometers an hour (17 miles an hour).

Atlantis and its seven-strong crew are returning from a successful 11-day mission to repair and restore the Hubble space telescope to allow it to continue its ground-breaking exploration of the universe for at least another five years.

As early as Thursday, the astronauts were told by NASA to shut down some of the computers on board the shuttle to conserve electricity in the event that their landing was delayed.

NASA has activated its Edwards Air Force Base in California as a backup landing point in case conditions do not clear up in Florida.

But the space agency would rather avoid such a scenario as it would mean flying the shuttle back to Florida on a Boeing 747, involving substantial extra cost.

"The only thing that makes tomorrow a little more hopeful is that the air will be a little more stable so the chances of thunderstorms will be a little bit less," said John Madura of NASA's Kennedy Space Center Weather bureau.

The Hubble observatory was released on Tuesday after five obstacle-filled spacewalks.

The enhancements have equipped Hubble to search for the earliest galaxies, probe the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy as well as study planet-making processes.

But the trouble was well worthwhile.

John Grunsfeld, an astronomer turned astronaut who led three of the mission's five spacewalks, told lawmakers Thursday that Hubble "is probably the most significant science instrument of all times."