The Columbus infrastructure

 Columbus laboratory, artist impression
zum Bild Columbus laboratory, artist impression

Columbus is a research laboratory that offers 25 cubic metres of space to as many as three astronauts working on scientific experiments. Its outer wall incorporates several layers of aluminium, Kevlar and Nextel to protect the laboratory from space debris and cosmic radiation as well as a thick layer of heat insulation.

The interior of Columbus consists of 16 so-called racks resembling fitted cupboards which accommodate laboratory equipment, computers and technical systems with a total mass of up to 700 kilograms. These racks were built to a standard that was similarly applied in the design of the American and Japanese modules. They have their own power supply, cooling system, and CCTV and data cables.  They can be exchanged or replaced as needed.

Although Columbus is the smallest of the six laboratory modules on the ISS, its volume, data capacity and energy supply permit conducting as many experiments as the other more expensive laboratories. To reduce costs further, Columbus was launched with a payload of 2500 kilograms already on board. Tele-operations technology will enable scientists on Earth to control some experiments directly and access their data.

Three more racks provide storage space, while another three accommodate the infrastructure, i.e. the power supply and data communication systems, the water pumps and the climate and fire control systems. Thus, for instance, astronauts may vary the temperature inside the laboratory between 16 and 30 degrees Celsius. Columbus will be provided with fresh air by its connecting Node 2, where the air will be reprocessed and purged of carbon dioxide.

The solar panels of the space station will provide Columbus with 20kW of electric power, of which 13.5kW will be available for the scientific equipment.

The outer wall has yet another four racks for experiments attached to it, offering researchers a chance to directly expose their experimental rigs to space and the characteristic conditions prevailing there: vacuum, interstellar radiation, absolute zero and microgravity. Furthermore, these racks may be used to observe Earth.

An infrastructural element developed and made in Germany on behalf of ESA was tested on the ISS. Once it completed its test phase, conducted by NASA in the US laboratory Destiny, it was integrated in Columbus as part of the station's permanent infrastructure. This is ANITA, an interferometer capable of analyzing as many as 32 gaseous components of the cabin air including formaldehyde, ammonia and carbon monoxide.

 ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts inspects the interior of the European Columbus laboratory
zum Bild ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts inspects the interior of the European Columbus laboratory

Demonstrating the precision and reliability of an innovative measuring technology in orbit, it shows the potential of a subsequent generation of scanners to detect trace gases in the atmosphere of space stations and other enclosed spaces. This analytical system not only averts dangers from the crew, it also prevents the station being evacuated unnecessarily when a momentarily unidentifiable pollution is detected in the cabin air.

Another engrossing subject is ARES, an oxygen-generating device that will be tested in Columbus in the future. Unlike the systems that are currently installed in the station, ARES operates in a closed cycle. It is capable of generating enough oxygen to supply seven astronauts from the water on ISS (waste water, condensation etc.). Running ARES continuously would reduce the volume of water that must be transported annually to the ISS by about 1000 kilograms, which would cut relevant costs by around 20 million dollars. Furthermore, Columbus may serve as a test environment to verify ARES' capability to generate and store energy in conjunction with renewable-fuel cells.

Lastly, Columbus offers yet another opportunity of demonstrating Germany's competence in laser communication (LCT). The possibility of deploying such a system in Columbus is being investigated. The installation of a terminal of this pioneering laser technology might establish an autonomous European line of communication between Earth and the ISS that would offer maximum capacities.

The scientific racks in the european space laboratory Columbus:

Name Function
Biolab Biolab allows researchers to study micro-organisms, cell cultures, tissue specimens and small plants or animals.
Fluid Science Laboratory The Fluid Science Laboratory permits studying the complicated behaviour of fluids to implement improvements in energy generation and fuel efficiency as well as in environmental and other fields. As gravity-related effects like settling, stratification, pressure and convection do not operate in the absence of gravity, scientists may study dynamic fluid effects much more closely.
European Physiology Modules Astronauts will use it to analyze the human body's response to weightlessness in self-experiments (e.g. osteoporosis, fluid circulation, breathing, organs, immune system, cerebral activity).
European Drawer Rack The European Drawer Rack serves for the flexible accommodation of small experiments in various disciplines.

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