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Japanese cargo ship completes smooth docking

Japan's new HTV cargo ship makes a near-flawless automated rendezvous with the International Space Station, delivering some 3.5 tons of supplies and equipment.

Japan's new HTV cargo ship, carrying more than 7,000 pounds of supplies and equipment, was plucked out of open space by the International Space Station's robot arm Thursday to complete a near-flawless automated rendezvous marking a major milestone for the station program.

Arm operator Nicole Stott, working inside the Destiny laboratory module, locked the station's space crane onto the HTV cargo ship at 3:47 p.m. EDT as the two spacecraft moved into orbital darkness 220 miles above Eastern Europe.

The Japanese HTV during final approach to the International Space Station. NASA TV

"It's a real example of international cooperation with a Japanese vehicle captured by a Canadian arm with American and European astronauts ... under the command of a Russian commander," said Frank De Winne, a European Space Agency astronaut. "It's really true international cooperation."

A few moments later, Stott, De Winne and their crewmates posed in front of the robot arm work station and thanked flight controllers for their support.

"We're all here and we all just want to say congratulations to the entire (team)," Stott said. "We had an amazing time doing this. We are so, so happy to have this beautiful vehicle here with us now and we look very forward to going in tomorrow and finding all the surprises I'm sure you've stowed there for us.

The HTV cargo ship docked to the space station's Harmony module. NASA TV

"So we're going to wave our drink bags, our 'HTV special reserve' drink bags, and we're going to drink a special drink of our very special water here to all of you," Stott said. "Thanks again and we really look forward to tomorrow."

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, taking over arm operations from Stott, then slowly moved the HTV to a docking port on the station's forward Harmony module. After correcting for a minor misalignment, 16 motorized bolts were driven home to firmly lock the HTV to the station. Docking was complete at 6:26 p.m.

If all goes well, the astronauts will enter the cargo ship Friday and begin unloading supplies.

The HTV was launched on its maiden voyage last Thursday by a Japanese H-2B rocket, also making its first flight. The rocket and the cargo craft performed well and after a week of tests and checkout, the spacecraft moved into the terminal phase of its rendezvous sequence.

Unlike Russian Progress cargo craft and the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, the Japanese ship was not designed to dock with the station on its own. Instead, the spacecraft autonomously maneuvered to a position just below the station and waited for the lab's robot arm to grapple it and move it to a docking port.

"On this particular flight, we've got about two-and-a-half tons of pressurized cargo flying to orbit and almost a metric ton of payloads externally coming to ISS," said space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini. "So it's a significant amount of up mass to us.

"Almost 20 percent of the pressurized volume is research hardware. Also, the two payloads externally (in the HTV's cargo bay) are very unique and new capabilities for ISS. There's been quite a bit of talk about the use of ISS for Earth research and in fact, the two payloads flying ... are intended to do that very thing."

The space station crew toasts ground controllers with "HTV Special Reserve" water bags after flight engineer Nicole Stott grappled the Japanese cargo ship. NASA TV

One of the payloads in the HTV's unpressurized cargo bay is a NASA experiment to map the constituents of the upper atmosphere and the other is a JAXA payload designed to study the effects of trace gases on the ozone layer. Both will be extracted from the HTV cargo bay by the station's robot arm and installed on an external porch by a Japanese robot arm on the Kibo lab module.

"Those are very critical things for us to understand relative to understanding our environment and how we affect it and it's good to be able to finally start having this kind of research on board ISS," Suffredini said.

Developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, as a contribution to the station program, the HTV measures some 32 feet long, 14.4 feet wide, and weighs some 23,000 pounds when carrying a full 13,200-pound load of cargo. For its maiden flight, the HTV-1 is carrying about 3.5 metric tons of equipment and supplies.