The International Space Station has two sets of incompatible docking ports, one designed for Russian spacecraft and Europe’s space freighter, and another design for the now-retired US Space Shuttle. There also are berthing ports for vessels that cannot dock on their own but are first captured by the Station’s robotic arm.
Read: New International Standard Set for Connecting Spacecraft in Orbit
Russian docking ports have a male and female version, like an electrical plug and socket. This means that a spacecraft can dock only with a vehicle that has the correct receiving port. Above, the male version on ATV is visible.
The unpiloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) ins held underneath by the International Space Station’’s robotic Canadarm2. NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk and ESA astronaut Frank De Winne, Expedition 20 flight engineers, used the robotic arm to grab the cargo vessel and attach it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node on 17 September 2009. The berthing ring is visible at the right.
The Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft docking with the International Space Station. Inside were ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and Roscosmos commander Maxim Suraev. The spacecraft docked at 01:44 GMT (03:44 CEST) 29 May 2014. Just over two hours later the docking hatch was opened and the International Space Station returned to a full six-person crew.
This image shows the male part of the Russian docking system on the Soyuz spacecraft, the extending rod that guides the spacecraft to a secure connection. Russian docking ports have a male and female part, like an electrical plug and socket. This means that a spacecraft can dock only with a vehicle that has the correct receiving port.
The Androgynous Peripheral Attachment System on the International Space Station designed to connect the Space Shuttle with the outpost. This image was taken from Space Shuttle Endeavour during mission STS-108 as it approached the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2.
ESA’s International Berthing and Docking Mechanism embodies the international standard that will work with a lighter generation of space vehicles. It is identical for both craft – any two vehicles can dock or be berthed.
Although the connection is defined by the international standard, the mechanism behind the docking ring can be designed in any way, making further cooperation in space easier.
The International Berthing Docking Mechanism is the only design that senses the forces at play between two spacecraft and adapts accordingly, ‘grabbing’ a lighter vessel or absorbing the loads of a heavier vehicle.
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