WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US space shuttle Endeavour, with six astronauts on board including an Italian, docked at the International Space Station on Wednesday, NASA said.

The docking, the next to last for the US shuttle program, took place at 1014 GMT, according to a commentator on NASA TV, which broadcast live footage of the maneuver.

The opening of the hatches went ahead at 7:38 am Eastern time in the United States, 1138 GMT, about an hour earlier than scheduled.

"The crew of 12 will be together until May 23, when space station crew members Dmitry Kondratyev, Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli undock and return home to Earth," NASA said.

A NASA mission status press briefing was set for 9 am (1300 GMT).

The shuttle blasted off Monday on a 16-day mission to deliver a potent physics experiment to probe the origins of the universe.

The mission, which will include four spacewalks, is being commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of Democratic US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who is recovering after being shot in the head at a January political meeting with local voters.

The shuttle will remain at the station until May 30, returning to the United States on June 1.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, a two-billion-dollar, 15,000 pound (7,000 kilogram) particle detector, will be left behind to scour the universe for hints of dark matter and antimatter over the next decade.

The 30-year US space shuttle program formally ends later this year with the flight of Atlantis, leaving Russia's space capsules as the sole option for world astronauts heading to and from the orbiting research lab.