During their final full day in orbit, Discovery's astronauts released a small student satellite high over the Indian Ocean and prepared for a Sunday morning landing at the Kennedy Space Center.
Mission Specialist Julie Payette of the Canadian Space Agency deployed the spherical, mirror-covered STARSHINE satellite at 2:31 a.m. CDT. The satellite rose slowly out of its payload bay and entered an orbit two miles below Discovery. At 6 a.m. CDT, the two spacecraft were 26 miles apart, with the distance between them widening by 10 miles each orbit.
STARSHINE project officials at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center report they have already been able to see the bright satellite. More than 25,000 students from 18 countries are participating in the project. As the students track the satellite - which is visible to the naked eye - they will calculate the density of the Earth's upper atmosphere by recording changes in STARSHINE'S orbit. The satellite is expected to remain aloft for about 8 months, re-entering the atmosphere in January.
Earlier in the day, the shuttle crew successfully verified the performance of Discovery's small steering jets and flight control surfaces, ensuring their readiness to support landing. The crew also tested all the necessary communications channels, and stowed away some of the equipment and hardware used on board over the past several days.
With favorable weather conditions forecast for the primary landing site, mission managers decided not to activate the back-up landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There are two landing opportunities at the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday. For the first, Commander Kent Rominger would fire Discovery's engines in a deorbit burn at 11:54 p.m. Saturday with a landing following at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility at 1:03 a.m. Sunday. The second landing opportunity calls for a deorbit burn at 1:30 a.m. Sunday, resulting in a landing at 2:38 a.m. This will be the 11th night landing for the shuttle program.
Meanwhile the International Space Station continues to circle the globe at an altitude of 246 miles, trailing Discovery by 210 miles, with the distance increasing 10 miles each orbit.
The next STS-96 mission status report will be issued at 6 p.m. Saturday or as developments warrant.
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