European technology enables sustainable research under zero-gravity conditions
Further progress towards commercialisation of ISS operation and use
31 January 2018 – On 7 February 2008, US space shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, on its historic STS-122 mission. Its cargo: the European Columbus space laboratory developed and constructed by Airbus on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). Columbus was put into operation on 11 February 2008. Since then, Europe has had its own outpost in Space, offering scientists from all over the world one of the most fascinating research locations possible. For 10 years, Europe’s Columbus space laboratory, built by Airbus, has been a permanent module of the International Space Station, and has provided a dependable research environment for around 1,800 scientific experiments. Airbus also built the life support system of the Columbus module, and continues to supply numerous experiments and associated racks.
The Columbus space laboratory is Europe’s largest single contribution to the International Space Station. The module, 6.90 metres long, 4.5 metres wide and a launch mass of 12.8 tonnes, which includes the 2.5-tonne payload, is equipped with 16 flexible, high-performance experiment racks. Up to three astronauts can work aboard Columbus at once. The experiment racks are usually used for multidisciplinary research projects in areas such as human physiology and life science, space medicine, material sciences, liquid and solid state physics and plasma research. There is also a platform or ‘balcony’ attached to the outside of the laboratory module, which also hosts equipment and experiments, such as for Earth observation, tests of space technology and research on cosmic radiation.
As prime contractor for ESA, Airbus oversaw a large consortium of companies from 10 European nations to develop and build Columbus. A total of €880 million was invested in the course of the development programme. The Columbus control centre is located in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, and is operated by the German Aerospace Research Centre (DLR).
“Columbus is a shining example of European research technology and a key contribution of the ESA member states to the success story of the International Space Station,” said Nicolas Chamussy, Head of Airbus Space Systems. “Airbus is the European leader in human space flight, on-orbit service and space robotics, and we’re extremely proud to have contributed to 10 years of trouble-free operation of the Columbus laboratory with our know-how. We congratulate ESA and all the ISS partners on this achievement.”
The design of the Columbus module is based on the experience that Airbus gained in developing and building Spacelab, the space laboratory in the late 1970s. In all, 22 Spacelab missions were flown aboard the space shuttle until 1998.
The ISS, with Columbus, orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 340 kilometres roughly once every 90 minutes, completing 16 orbits in 24 hours. Since Columbus’ commissioning on 11 February 2008 until 11 February 2018, the ISS has been in orbit for 3,654 days – meaning that Columbus has circled the globe 58,464 times.
Airbus has been carrying out industrial operating activities for the European ISS components for nearly 10 years on behalf of ESA. These services include maintenance, spare-parts procurement and the logistics required for the European elements of the space station, which of course are also needed to keep the Columbus space laboratory operating. But these activities also include developments to improve the functionality of the laboratory, as well as supporting scientists in developing new experiment racks. The contract also covers data transfers, the communications systems and the maintenance of ground stations.
- In 1985, the ESA Ministerial Council meeting in Rome, approved European participation in the International Space Station. The Columbus programme was approved at the subsequent meeting of the ESA Ministerial Council in The Hague in 1987. The European contribution to the space station was to consist of a module permanently attached to the core station. Multiple programme changes led to a reorientation of the programme, resulting in Columbus as it is today.
- 1996: Contract between ESA and MBB-ERNO (today Airbus)
- 2003: Space shuttle disaster. Programme temporarily put on hold
- 2006: Module delivered to NASA from Airbus in Bremen
- 07/02/2008: Launch aboard the Atlantis space shuttle (planned launches in December 2007 and January 2008 postponed due to technical problems)
- 11/02/2008 Laboratory commissioned in space
To date, 13 European astronauts have visited the Columbus space laboratory, among them Germans Hans Schlegel and Alexander Gerst. Italian Paolo Nespoli is the only ESA astronaut to have visited Columbus twice. In 2018, Alexander Gerst will fly to the ISS for the second time, as the first German to serve as commander of the space station. Six astronauts were aboard the Atlantis space shuttle for the STS-122 mission, including two ESA astronauts: German Hans Schlegel and French astronaut Leopold Eyharts.
Scientific benefits of Columbus / the ISS
Columbus can accommodate a total of 16 racks, 10 of which can hold the scientific equipment needed for various experiments. Three serve as storage space and the other three house installations for the infrastructure, primarily power and water supply as well as air conditioning. The ESA experiment racks were developed and built primarily by the German space industry, in most cases under the leadership of the Airbus team in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
The experiment racks in the Columbus laboratory operate largely automatically or by remote control from Earth. Eight special User Support Operations Centres (USOCs) in Europe permit scientists to monitor their experiments directly or intervene interactively by teleoperation. Each is specialised in a specific research area and based in a different ESA member state. These USOCs form the link between the experiment racks in space and scientists and engineers on the ground. High-speed networks ensure rapid communication. All USOCs are linked with international mission centres in the USA, Russia and Japan via a European ISS network on the ground.
Examples of experiments
Geoflow – insights into the inner working of our planet
In its interior, the Earth is layered like an onion. But what exactly goes on in there? What flow patterns, for instance, prevail in the fluid part of the Earth’s core, and the Earth’s fluid mantle? How do these flows influence the distribution of temperature? So far, scientists seeking to research these flows in a ground-based laboratory face one insuperable obstacle: gravity. This manifests itself as a virtually homogeneous force acting perpendicularly downward. In reality, however, conditions are quite different, and they cannot be simulated under the influence of the Earth’s gravity. The ISS experiment is a ‘miniature Earth’, in which the flows in the Earth’s fluid core can be simulated and measured.
SOLO – Does salt weaken astronauts’ bones even further?
This ISS experiment studies the interaction between salt, nutrition, water balance, circulation and bone degeneration. Potential application: new methods for treating high blood pressure by influencing the salt content in food. For two five-day periods during their stay on the ISS, the astronauts have to follow a fixed diet featuring either a low or a high salt content. Urine samples reveal the elimination of salt and provide information on certain markers of bone metabolism.
MFX (Magnetic Field Experiment)
Electrical conductors and sensors are moved through Earth’s magnetic field. This experiment analyses the interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and, for example, other planets in the solar system. The ISS is travelling through Earth’s magnetosphere at an orbital velocity of 7.5 kilometres per second – a unique laboratory environment for researching an effective magnetic shield.
Astronauts’ immune systems are weakened during their missions, but the reasons and mechanisms behind this are not understood. A comprehensive experimental programme (including measurements of hormones and protein factors in blood and urine, breath analysis) aims to resolve this. Potential application: a new, non-invasive method to analyse breath gas that could complement or even replace blood analyses in the future. The Immuno project sees scientists from the Klinikum of the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich investigating changes in the immune system of long-term ISS crews by performing comprehensive biochemical analysis, supplemented by psychological tests.
Microbial contamination by fungi, germs and spores threaten both crews and hardware in Space. On the International Space Station (ISS) as well as on long-term missions, those tiny organisms could grow into a big health and safety problem. The E-Nose analyses gases. The long-term objective is to ‘sniff out’ bio-markers, such as those for stress or illness, in exhaled air.
ColAIS and vessel ID system – enhancing maritime safety from Space
ColAIS and the vessel ID system are an example of how the ISS can be used for Earth observation. Ships are humanity’s largest movable structures. They can transport large quantities of goods with few personnel and at low cost. According to the DLR, around 45,000 merchant ships currently ply the world’s oceans, transporting many billions of tonnes of goods per year.
ColAIS is an experimental ISS sensor that registers ship movements by receiving the AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder signals that these vessels transmit. The transponders are mandatory for international vessels over 300 tonnes and freighters over 500 tonnes.
EMCS – plant biology in a weightless environment
On Earth, plants orient themselves according to gravity and light, but how does that work in Space? What effects do the light spectrum and cosmic radiation have? The research in the EMCS ‘greenhouse’ seeks answers to just these questions. EMCS has been aboard the Space station for 12 years (10 of them in Columbus), and offers unique stimuli and diagnostic possibilities. To date, close to 20,000 seeds have been germinated and their growth observed.
The Electromagnetic Levitator (EML) is a crucible-free melting furnace which, in a micro-gravity environment, can freely suspend metallic alloy samples in a coil using electromagnetic fields. Metals can be melted and then cooled in a way not possible on Earth to look at viscosity and surface tension, specific heat capacity, thermal expansion, electric conductivity. This enables the analysis of the early phases of the emergence of a material structure (nucleation). The results hold enormous potential, and are intended, for example, to optimise industrial casting processes and for basic research purposes, so as to obtain a greater understanding of high-tech alloys and semiconductor materials and their properties in their molten state.
MSG – Microgravity Science Glovebox
The MSG has been aboard the ISS since July 2002, and was also relocated to the Columbus module for a time. Its unique design makes this glovebox an extremely versatile ‘laboratory in a laboratory’ for a very diverse range of scientific experiments under microgravity conditions. The glovebox offers two independent physical barriers for handling experiments with critical substances or particles.
The many supply connections for power, data, gas/vacuum and cooling as well as video systems for in-situ observation and control help to make the MSG the most heavily used scientific rack on the Space station, with over 25,000 hours of experiments to date. The MSG plays an extremely vital role in ESA and NASA research under micro-g conditions and future missions to the Moon and Mars.