CAPE CANAVERAL, NOV. 27 -- Space shuttle Columbia is set to lift off on its long-postponed 10-day astronomy mission between 1:28 and 3:58 a.m. EST Sunday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said today.

Columbia is to carry four major astronomical instruments, including a telescope designed to investigate the content of stars and the history of their formation, in a mission originally planned for 1986.

Scientists who have waited years for the flight would prefer to wait a little longer to take advantage of better celestial viewing in mid-December. Certain astronomical targets, such as the brightest visible quasar, will be farther from the sun then than they will be during the full moon Sunday. Astronomers prefer dark skies.

The astronomy mission was originally planned for March 6, 1986, but the Challenger explosion Jan. 28 that year grounded all space shuttles.

After flights resumed, the mission was rescheduled for launch last March 1. It slipped to May 9, then to May 30. Six hours before launch, a liquid hydrogen leak was discovered in Columbia and the launch was scrubbed.

Three more launch attempts failed, two of them because of hydrogen leaks and one for a minor problem with the payload, before an Oct. 30 leak check cleared Columbia.