When the Shuttle Atlantis launches tomorrow, it will be carrying with it an important addition to the International Space Station (ISS): the Columbus laboratory. The module is a scientific research facility developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) that will significantly expand the station’s experimental capabilities. It is also the first piece of real estate on the station that will be controlled by the Europeans, making ISS a truly international collaboration.
The new laboratory will allow scientists to do a wider variety of experiments that they otherwise would not be able to do, says Julie Robinson, the program scientist for ISS at NASA. “For instance,” she says, “we need to understand how the human body works in space if we are going to travel beyond Earth orbit. With Columbus we can cluster together the human research facility racks that NASA has built with the European physiology module. What we start getting is an integrated international laboratory.”
The Columbus laboratory is approximately seven meters in length and four and a half meters in diameter. It is going to launch with four research racks: a biology lab, for experiments on microorganisms and cells in plants, invertebrates, and even food for exploration; a fluid science lab, for fluid physics experiments; a physiology module, to study the human body; and a rack, to study materials for power, communication, and even aircraft engines.
The module will be able to hold a total of 10 racks, the same number currently available on the United States scientific laboratory on ISS, called Destiny. The two modules are similar in design so that their research racks can be interchangeable. Next year, the third and final research facility, called Kibo, developed by the Japanese for ISS, will launch.
Columbus will be operated by a control center located in Southern Germany that ties into the mission-control centers in Houston and Moscow. It will also have nine centers in different countries throughout Europe that will link to the main control center so that researchers who have experiments onboard can operate Columbus from as close to home as possible, says Alan Thirkettle, the ISS program manager for ESA.
The launch of Columbus is “very exciting for us and will be the first major international program we have done with Canada, Japan, Russia, and America, and I look forward to the discoveries we are going to make,” says Thirkettle.