The space shuttle Atlantis parted ways with the International Space Station this morning and headed back towards the confines of Earth, even as NASA was rolling another shuttle onto the launch pad, preparing for its March 11th mission. In its 9-day stay, Atlantis attached Europe’s first permanent laboratory to the space station; the next flight will add the beginning of a Japanese research module, Reuters reports.
The European laboratory, Columbus, was supposed to be installed 6 years ago, but 2003’s Columbia accident derailed those plans. “It’s a great new room you added on,” station commander Peggy Whitson told the shuttle as it departed. “Get home safe, and thanks.” Atlantis should touch down by Wednesday, bearing both its crew and astronaut Dan Tani, whose mother died while he was on an extended stay at the station.