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Hadfield to connect with Canadarm2 on the Space Station

Mission STS-114 was known as "The Return to Flight", being the first shuttle launch since the Columbia tragedy. Among its many tasks, Canadarm2 assisted astronauts during their spacewalks. In this image, NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson is held aloft by Canadarm2 during the crew's third spacewalk. (Credit: NASA)

Astronaut Chris Hadfield and Canadarm2, Canada's primary contribution to the International Space Station (ISS), are old friends.

The veteran astronaut is preparing to join forces with the versatile 17.6 meter long robotic limb once again as he returns to the orbiting science laboratory in 2012-2013 as part of Expedition 34/35.

Hadfield and his NASA crewmates will command Canadarm2 as it takes on yet another indispensable role in the Station's life, capturing and berthing the newly developed US commercial capsules filled with the food, clothing, spare parts and research equipment that will keep the six-person lab productive.

The unpiloted SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus supply capsules are expected to be flying regularly in 2012, shouldering the cargo hauling duties once assigned to NASA's retired shuttle fleet. Though the launch schedule is uncertain, each Expedition crew is prepared to receive multiple US commercial freighters or one of Japan's flight-proven HTV-II "free-flyer" supply craft, which also relies on Canadarm2 for berthing.

"It's demanding, it takes a lot of training, and you have to stay current," said Hadfield. "The consequences are very expensive if you mess up a free-flyer capture."

Canadarm2 is seen through a window of the ISS' cupola in April 2012 during an onboard training session in preparation for the SpaceX demo Dragon capture by Expedition 30. (Credit : NASA)

Every astronaut assigned to the Station's US segment is trained for what the crews call the "track and capture" of the supply ships. The berthing operation is considered a three-person task.

The primary Canadarm2 operator is poised at hand controllers in the Station's cupola observation deck, ready to latch onto the grapple fixture of the free-flyer as the supply capsule carries out a pre-programmed rendezvous maneuver.

The operator is joined by a fully-trained co-pilot and a third astronaut in training who is ready to assist.

In order to expand the experience base, Hadfield may fill the co-pilot role during the first mission capture, then step up to pilot. He can expect to share the duties with NASA astronauts Kevin Ford, Tom Marshburn, or Chris Cassidy.

Canadarm2 will also provide spacewalking astronauts with an indispensable mobile platform on which to move around the outside of the Station during construction activities and urgent repair tasks.

Preparations begin with basic training in the use of the robotic arm at the CSA in Longueuil, Quebec.

Operated by Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk with assistance from European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne and NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Canadarm2 guides the unpiloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle a safe distance from the ISS to be released into the Earth's orbit. (Credit: NASA)

"The most complicated thing you can do with Canadarm2 is position a spacewalker on the tip for a complex operation. The risks are high, and the unpredictably of what is going to happen is the highest," said Hadfield. "Spacewalk support with the arm is very demanding and very difficult to train for. The next thing after that is grabbing a free-flyer."

Preparations begin with basic training in the use of the robotic arm at the Canadian Space Agency in Longueuil, Quebec.

Once assigned to a station flight, astronauts travel often between the United States, Europe, Russia and Japan. Most of their Canadarm2 preparations take place at NASA's Johnson Space Center, using a combination of engineering simulators and a virtual reality training lab. Mission Control teams join in the preparation sessions as well. There is also a training console in Star City, Russia, which is also configured for joint exercises with Mission Control. There is even a Canadian-provided laptop trainer aboard the Space Station.

The preparations build on the first successful track and captures that berthed unpiloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles with the Station's Harmony module after they launched in 2011 and 2009.

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