NASA's final shuttle flight pushed back to November

Mission delayed so scientists can upgrade particle detector for space station stay

NASA is delaying the launch date of its last space shuttle flight, pushing back the final mission from September to November.

The space agency announced late Monday that the final shuttle flight is being delayed so scientists can better adapt a particle detector for an extended operation on board the International Space Station. The update to the particle detector should enable it to function through 2020, which is how long NASA plans to operate the space station.

The space shuttle fleet had been scheduled to be retired after a final flight in September. Only three shuttle flights remain.

The slip in the last launch date isn't surprising.

Late last month, NASA's Office of the Inspector General released a report noting that it will probably take NASA until the first or second quarter of 2011 to complete the last of the remaining shuttle flights.

NASA hadn't mentioned a need to push the last shuttle flights into next year and Monday's announcement was its first news of a schedule change.

Next on deck is the space shuttle Atlantis , which is scheduled to lift off for a resupplying trip to the space station on May 14. Atlantis , which is already set up at its launch pad, is slated to bring an Integrated Cargo Carrier and a Russian-built Mini Research Module up to the space station.

After that mission, the space shuttle Discovery is set to go up Sept. 16. On Monday, though, NASA noted that launch date is not firm. The space agency will be assessing Discovery's readiness and could push back that launch if necessary.

The big hold up for the last shuttle flight lies with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer , a particle detector designed to sit on the space station's backbone. The device would detect high-energy particles, many of which were created by supernova explosions in distant galaxies, according to MIT, which has had researchers working on the project.

By studying electrons, positrons, protons and antiprotons, scientists may be able to answer questions about the Big Bang, such as what makes up the universe's invisible mass.

MIT noted that more than 200 researchers from 31 institutions in 15 countries have been working on the particle detector.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld . Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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