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Shuttle crew tests robot arm

The apparatus is part of Japan's Kibo laboratory at the international space station.

HOUSTON - Astronauts debuted the international space station's newest piece of equipment yesterday during a successful but very limited test.

Space shuttle Discovery crew members Akihiko Hoshide and Karen Nyberg moved two of the six joints on the Japanese Kibo lab's robotic arm for the first time, maneuvering them very slightly with a series of commands.

"The very first maneuver was completed successfully," Hoshide told Japanese flight controllers near Tokyo.

Full deployment of the 33-foot arm will be done after Discovery leaves the station this week. However, it won't be used for any actual work until after the launch into orbit next year of the billion-dollar lab's third and final section - a "porch" for exterior experiments - and a second, smaller robotic arm.

After he and Nyberg finished testing the robotic arm, Hoshide reflected on what Kibo means for Japan.

"It's a big milestone. We have our own house here now," Hoshide said during a series of media interviews yesterday.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda spoke to Hoshide and Discovery commander Mark Kelly during a call to the space station later in the day.

"I'd like to congratulate you on your successful installation of Kibo," Fukuda said.

The initial deployment of the robotic arm provides room for astronauts Michael Fossum and Ronald Garan Jr. to finish some final outfitting of the lab today during their third and final spacewalk of the current shuttle mission.

Yesterday, Fossum and Garan got word that an extra task had been added to the spacewalk.

Fossum will collect samples of grease and small amounts of debris detected on a solar wing rotating joint on the space station's left side.

The grease and debris will be analyzed by engineers back on Earth to see if it can help them figure out what caused a similar joint on the right side of the station to be clogged with metal shavings.

The right side joint has been used only sparingly since last fall, hampering energy production. The joints enable the space station's solar arrays, which provide electrical power, to rotate and track the sun.

The left side joint is working normally, but engineers are trying to prevent it from experiencing problems, as well. Fossum said he wasn't worried about the joint.

It "looks to be in pretty darn good shape," he said.

Fossum and Garan also planned to replace an empty nitrogen gas tank during today's spacewalk.

Also yesterday, several thermal protective panels on Discovery's right wing that the astronauts had taken extra photographs of because of some slight pulses in their embedded sensors were given the "all clear," said flight director Annette Hasbrook.

The wing sensors are one of many safety measures put in place after shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry in 2003 as a result of a gashed wing.

Kibo, Japanese for hope, was delivered by the shuttle and installed on the space station last week.

The attic - a 14-foot shed, or closet, for spare tools and equipment - was put atop the 37-foot lab on Friday. It had been in a temporary location at the space station since being delivered by another shuttle crew in March.

Kibo is the largest of the nine rooms now at the space station, including the two other labs, belonging to NASA and the European Space Agency.

Martian Dirt Falls Short of Test Oven

The first sample

of Martian dirt dumped onto the opening of the Phoenix lander's tiny testing oven failed to reach the instrument.

Photos released

by the University of Arizona team overseeing the mission showed a scoopful of dirt sitting on and around the open oven door after being dumped by the craft's 8-foot robot arm.

But none of it made it

past a screen and into the tiny chamber, one of eight on the craft designed to heat soil and test gases for signs of water or organic compounds.

Nothing seems to be wrong

with the dirt delivery by the lander's robot arm, said William Boynton of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is overseeing the oven experiments.

The dirt landed properly

and instruments show a vibrator on the screen designed to help shake soil into the chamber was working.

An electronic eye

positioned to detect dirt falling into the chamber didn't report any particles.

Phoenix landed

in Mars' northern plains on May 25 for a three-month mission. It is not a rover like some Mars missions, and its instruments cannot directly detect past or present life.

- Associated Press