The Columbus space laboratory began its journey into space on 7 February 2008 and has now been the scientific heart of European research on the International Space Station (ISS) for ten years. In microgravity, researchers gain unique insights from a wide range of disciplines from astrophysics, through materials research, to psychology and medical treatment options. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) supervised the development and construction of the ISS module on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA), is involved with experiments at a research level and runs the operation from its Columbus Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen.
A total of 161 ESA experiments have been conducted in the Columbus laboratory, as well as experiments by 67 international partners and commercial users. More than 100 astronauts have been on board – the first being Hans Schlegel, who commissioned the Columbus module during mission STS-122. In June 2018, Alexander Gerst will return to the laboratory, which orbits Earth at an altitude of 400 kilometres, for his ISS 'Horizons' mission. This is a workplace that brings back many memories for the German ESA Astronaut – such as the improvised use of shaving foam to collect sawdust when installing the Electromagnetic Levitator (EML) furnace. Alexander Gerst will be able to build upon his successful work in 2014 when he replaces the facility’s sample set this summer, in order to allow a new series of materials physics experiments.
Around 80 scientists and engineers at DLR's German Space Operations Center (GSOC) supervise the European activities on the ISS. For more than 87,600 hours, GSOC's DLR Space Operations and Astronaut Training (RB) has been monitoring and coordinating operations in the Columbus module on the ISS. During this time, the ground crew have not only maintained routine operations, but also had to constantly overcome new challenges. These have included software updates for the highly specialised operating system, as well as the repair and maintenance of vital systems, such as the replacement of a 70-kilogram water pump.
New scientific territory
During its 10-year history, the space laboratory has constantly broken new scientific ground. This has included the study of magnetic fields and the basics for the development of protective shields with the help of the magnetic field experiment 'MagVector/MFX'. In the 'Biolab', scientists have been able to study the growth behaviour of plants and microorganisms in microgravity. The continuation of plasma crystal experiments is eagerly awaited, as are the experiments on human-robot interaction using the intelligent DLR robot, Justin.
The 'PK-4' apparatus allows physical processes to be investigated at an 'atomic' level in a model system for liquids and solids. The discovery of plasma crystals back in 1994 meant that physics textbooks had to be rewritten. With the new series of experiments in the Columbus laboratory scheduled for this autumn, the DLR Institute of Materials Physics in Space (German) will obtain data that will be used for decades.
The DLR-Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics (RM) is currently preparing two follow-up experiments as part of its METERON project. The astronauts on board the ISS will control the humanoid robot Justin at DLR Oberpfaffenhofen via a tablet computer in the Columbus laboratory. By means of a simple, remote command input, the robot is expected to independently perform complex tasks. During the second half of the year, a co-worker experiment is planned with Alexander Gerst. From the ISS, using the tablet, the ESA astronaut will test the next development stage of a future robonaut – the intelligent assembly of elements for setting up a device or Mars station.
The ISS is the largest technology project ever undertaken. This 'outpost' of humanity in space is currently jointly operated by the United States, Russia, ESA member states, Canada and Japan. The The German Space Agency at DLR coordinates Germany's involvement in ESA’s ISS programmes with regard to the expansion, operation and use of the station, and is in charge of implementing the national utilisation programme. When preparing, implementing and evaluating German and European space experiments, scientists are assisted by the Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC). The European Astronaut Centre (EAC) is responsible for training the astronauts and the Columbus laboratory's operations team, in collaboration with DLR Space Operations and Astronaut Training (RB). The Columbus Control Center at DLR Oberpfaffenhofen operates the ISS module in close cooperation with the astronauts, as well as the NASA control centres in Houston and Huntsville.