Space gets a true universal dock

Computing has the USB cable. Analog audio visual equipment (in Europe at least) has the SCART lead. High definition has the HDMI cable. And now the International Space Station has its own standard plug/socket combo.

Five international space agencies have agreed a standard for the docking system used when spacecrafts dock in space stations. While there may still be international competition when it comes to space missions, those involved say the move was necessary to allow “emerging international cooperative space missions.”

The agencies also noted that the standard will mean it’s now possible to embark on international crew rescue missions if needed. You can see their point: if you’re stuck on a space station, you don’t exactly want to be turning a “foreign” rescue craft away because it won’t dock without one hell of a roll of duct tape to hold it in place.

The standard is the work of the International Space Station Multilateral Coordination Board, which is made up of representatives from space agencies in Russia, Japan, Canada, Europe as a whole, and NASA.

As part of the agreement, agencies will continue to be allowed to design spacecraft however they see fit, as long as the docking system is compatible with the standard.

Docking system compatibility is slightly more complicated in space than on Earth. For example, when you push a USB plug into a computer socket, it slots in relatively easily because the computer is too heavy to be pushed out of position. In a zero-gravity situation, objects can easily move continuously in any of the three dimensions; there’s also no friction to hold them in place.

The international standard also confirms the “androgynous” design as official. That’s a reference to the usual design of socketry as either male or female (think of plugs and sockets in terms of human gender differences if you don’t get the reference.) The standard — which stems from a compromise introduced in the early 1970s between Russian and American designs — means that both docks contain raised “petals” that slot together a little like the grooves of a screw-cap lid and the neck of a plastic bottle.

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