The space shuttle Discovery has finally been launched – with the mission to the International Space Station getting started with a lift-off late on Sunday.

The NASA mission, which will see the seven-man crew fit solar wings to the space station, has been much-delayed by valve trouble and then a hydrogen leak.

This has led to one of the four planned spacewalks being dropped from the program.

Visually beautiful

NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach was delighted with the shuttle's blast off, saying: "This was the most visually beautiful launch I've ever seen - it was just spectacular.

"I'm very proud to be a part of this team."

Discovery will leave the ISS before a Russian rocket will arrive with a fresh crew for the station on March 26.