ISS astronauts show what it's like to capture a spacecraft with a robotic arm (video)

Robot, meet spacecraft.

A new video shows what it's like to capture a visiting cargo ship at the International Space Station (ISS) — specifically, a Northrop Grumman Cygnus vehicle, which arrived Feb. 1 with vital supplies for the Expedition 70 crew.

NASA astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O'Hara worked together at the controls of the Canadarm2 robot arm, in the ISS wraparound Cupola window, to make the cosmic catch. Moghbeli posted the footage on X, formerly Twitter, on Feb. 13.

Related: Private Cygnus cargo ship arrives at the ISS carrying 8,200 pounds of supplies

Canadarm2 assists with berthing the Northrop Cygnus NG-20 spacecraft on Feb. 1, 2024 at the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA/X)

Canadarm2 is the second generation of robot arm from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and is now managed by supplier MDA. First used in the space shuttle program, the Canadarm series has assisted on spacewalks, hefted space station modules, repeatedly released and scooped up the Hubble Space Telescope, and performed many other tasks besides.

First installed on the ISS in 2001 by CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield and NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski, Canadarm2 was joined by a robotic helper named Dextre in 2008. Dextre specializes in moving smaller things around that require more dexterity. 

Canadarm2 was not exactly designed for berthing space station ships. But it has proved so capable that it has done dozens of these captures since May 2012, when a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship arrived at the ISS for the first time.

CSA and MDA are both working on successor robotic technology, called Canadarm3. This arm — complete with a large limb, a small limb and a "backpack" that can carry supplies around — will be mounted on NASA's moon-orbiting Gateway station, which the agency aims to start assembling in the next few years. 

CSA brokers seats and science on the ISS and NASA's Artemis moon program using its Canadarm series. Canadarm3 funded astronaut Jeremy Hansen's seat aboard the round-the-moon mission Artemis 2, for example, that should fly in 2025 or so. The next CSA astronaut on ISS will be Joshua Kutryk, also in 2025.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: