NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off in time from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, at 1445h (1945h GMT),  to begin its STS-122 mission to carry the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station.

Atlantis' 11-day mission, with an option for an extra day, will see Columbus attached to the ISS's Node 2 module, also known as Harmony. With Columbus' attached to the ISS, ESA will become a co-owner of the station. 

Atlantis' flight suffered a two-month delay after its December 2007 launch was cancelled due to problems with the Shuttle external tank's engine cut-off sensors.

At the post-launch press conference at Kennedy, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said "Columbus shows [the ISS] is a real partnership between countries". ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain described the launch as "a great day for ESA - now ESA is a visible and concrete partner for ISS".

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credit: ESA

 Above: Space Shuttle Atlantis on its ascent carrying the Columbus laboratory after its 1445h lift off

Mission activities for flight day one, following launch, are to open the payload bay doors, deploy the Ku-band communications antenna, activate and check out the Shuttle's robotic arm, and transmit back to Earth images of the external tank as it separated and fell away from the orbiter. This imagery is taken to monitor insulating foam loss from the tank.

On Saturday 9 February, flight day three, Atlantis will dock with the ISS and on Sunday Columbus will be unberthed from the orbiter's payload bay and attached to Harmony. On flight day five, Monday 11 February, astronauts will enter Columbus for the first time.

NASA astronaut Steve Frick commands Atlantis' crew of six, including pilot Alan Poindexter and mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love and ESA's Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts. This is the first spaceflight for Poindexter, Love and Melvin.

Schlegel will be involved in the extra-vehicular activity to transfer Columbus from Shuttle to station. Eyharts will remain onboard the ISS after Atlantis returns to Earth to complete the commissioning of the European laboratory, built by prime contractor EADS Astrium.

Atlantis will depart the station on flight day 10, 16 February, unless the extra day is added to the mission.