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Astronauts Float Into Japan's Space Lab

Japan's space lab is now open for business, science -- and art.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station floated into the lab module on Wednesday after power was activated, kick-starting Japan's permanent place in space.

In this image provided by NASA backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, the International Space Station is seen from Space Shuttle Endeavour as the two spacecraft begin their relative separationMonday March 24, 2008. Earlier the STS-123 and Expedition 16 crews concluded 12 days of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. (AP Photo/NASA)
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In this image provided by NASA backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, the International Space Station is seen from Space Shuttle Endeavour as the two spacecraft begin their relative separationMonday March 24, 2008. Earlier the STS-123 and Expedition 16 crews concluded 12 days of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. (AP Photo/NASA)

"The Kibo module is now open," said Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, before the opening of the hatch. Hoshide, brandishing a sign that said "Welcome" in English and Japanese, then floated in with his crewmates.

Dubbed "Kibo" or "Hope," the lab was delivered by the shuttle Discovery, which blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday for a two-week mission that has included a plumbing call to the orbital outpost.

On Tuesday, Kibo was attached to the Harmony module, which serves as a connecting node for several station components.

After the grand opening, the astronauts got to work outfitting the lab, installing the first of its racks. A total of 23 racks will eventually be installed, 10 of which will be devoted to science experiments.

Kibo is the centerpiece of this mission, making the $100 billion station and the scientific experiments conducted on it a global effort in space.

Kibo is a bus-sized addition to the station and is the largest of its laboratories.

Shaped like a cylinder, it is about 37 feet (11 metres) long and 15 feet (4.6 metres) in diameter and weighs about 32,000 pounds (14,520 kg).

The entire lab is so big it needs three shuttle flights for launch and assembly. The current mission is the second devoted to it.

Areas of research will include materials sciences, fluid physics and biomedicine. Kibo also will also have a cultural flavor and host activities like art and dance.

The cultural activities will merge with the scientific, with plans for a "space garden" based on a traditional and intricate Japanese gardening pattern. Each art experiment will be the brainchild of a Japanese artist.

During the mission's second spacewalk on Thursday, astronauts Michael Fossum and Ronald Garan will begin the external outfitting of Kibo.

This will include installing two cameras that will be used to judge clearances and spacing for the module's robotic arm.

Earlier on Wednesday, cosmonaut-plumber Oleg Kononenko, a member of the space station crew, tackled the critical job of fixing the sole toilet aboard the outpost with apparently successful results.

Kibo's launch had been on hold for years because of delays to the construction of the station. NASA has just two years to complete assembly before the shuttle fleet's retirement.

Seven construction missions and two resupply flights are pending. The U.S. space agency also plans a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope in October.