Image: Japan cargo craft docking
ESA / NASA via AP
The International Space Station's robotic arm is extended toward Japan's Kounotori 2 cargo vehicle in preparation for docking on Thursday.
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updated 1/27/2011 12:10:57 PM ET 2011-01-27T17:10:57

An unmanned Japanese cargo spaceship safely arrived at the International Space Station on Thursday, delivering tons of provisions for the station and its crew members.

The gleaming robotic cargo ship Kounotori 2 flawlessly pulled up to the station, drawing close enough for astronauts inside the outpost to latch onto it with a robotic arm.

Station astronauts Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli maneuvered the station's robotic arm to grab the cylindrical Kounotori 2 vehicle as it came within 33 feet (10 meters) of the space station. They then worked to attach it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

The successful capture of Kounotori 2 — also known as the H-2 Transfer Vehicle 2, or HTV-2 — was confirmed at 6:41 a.m. ET.

"We have HTV-2 in our grasp," Coleman said.

The crew then slowly and methodically moved the cargo ship to its berth at the bottom side of the Harmony node, using the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm. Sixteen bolts were driven in place to secure Kounotori 2 to the space station. The official attachment time was recorded at 9:51 a.m. ET.

Kounotori 2 is the second spacecraft built by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. The vehicles' name, "Kounotori," means "white stork" in Japanese.

Kounotori 2 launched to the station from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center on Jan. 22, riding into orbit atop an expendable H-2B rocket.The robot cargo craft is a gold-colored cylinder about 33 feet (10 meters) long and 14 feet (4.4 meters) wide. It is packed with 5.3 tons of supplies for the orbiting laboratory, including fresh food, water and science experiments.

Some of the cargo from Kounotori 2 will be unloaded inside the station, while other larger pieces of spare hardware will be temporarily stowed on the lab's exterior. A pallet full of spare parts will be extracted from a slot in Kounotori's midsection and attached to an experiment platform outside the station's Japanese Kibo module, NASA officials said. [Graphic: The International Space Station, Inside and Out]

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The cargo vessel will likely remain attached to the station for about 40 days. During that time, it will be filled with trash, and at the end of March it will be detached from the staton and sent down through Earth's atmosphere to burn up.

This is the second voyage for Japan's orbital spacecraft fleet. The first Kounotori cargo ship flew to the space station in September 2009. Japan's fleet of HTVs is part of a growing suite of internationally built unmanned cargo spaceships that help supply the International Space Station.

Following the retirement of NASA's astronaut-carrying space shuttles later this year, these robotic cargo ships will play a vital role in re-stocking the outpost for its live-in crews, officials have said.

You can follow Space.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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