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Tech Trends

Special Delivery in Space

Astronauts on the International Space Station have just received a fresh batch of supplies from a cargo ship. The delivery was a success, thanks to a docking maneuver developed by Japanese engineers.

The cargo vessel Kounotori 5 was tasked with bringing more than 5 tons of food, equipment and other supplies. Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui is onboard the ISS. He operated the controls to dock the ship, also known as an HTV.

The docking maneuver required cooperation among people in 3 different locations. A team at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, was responsible for guiding the Kounotori to within 10 meters of the ISS. Then, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata took charge of communications from NASA's control center in Houston. He worked with Yui to capture the ship. This is the first time Japanese teams on the ground and in space have cooperated on the maneuver.

With direction from Wakata, Yui extended the robotic arm, and successfully completed the docking procedure. An ISS astronaut confirmed the capture. Wakata congratulated Yui and the crew for doing a fantastic job and allowing successful delivery of the package.

Yui says he's proud, as a Japanese person, to be working there. He's also proud of the team. He says he may only play a small role in space exploration, but accomplishing this task made him feel like a star.

Japanese engineers developed the docking method out of safety concerns. Cargo vessels previously approached space stations using the thrust in their engines. But in 1997, a ship collided with the Russian space station Mir during a practice run. The accident damaged part of the station. Engineers began looking into a different method, and a team from JAXA found the solution.

The Kounotori uses a laser beam to gauge its distance from the ISS. It approaches at an extremely low speed. When it's 10 meters away, the engines cut out. That's when the crewmembers of the ISS take over. They capture the vessel with a robotic arm that's 17 meters long and weighs nearly 2 tons.

The maneuver requires a great degree of precision. The ISS is hurtling through space at about 28,000 kilometers per hour. JAXA engineers spent 10 years perfecting the technology.

The Kounotori's first docking operation 6 years ago surprised the ISS crew. The astronaut who operated the robotic arm said the cargo ship seemed to be standing still in space.

JAXA Engineer Koji Yamanaka says he's proud that the Kounotori is now indispensable for docking. He says it shows Japan is contributing to the world through its development of space technology.

Experts say the success of the docking procedure may give a boost to JAXA. They say it could increase Japan's presence in global space development.

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