6. February 2018

Hap­py birth­day, Colum­bus - 10 years of re­search in mi­cro­grav­i­ty

Colum­bus mod­ule – ex­te­ri­or view
Image 1/4, Credit: NASA.

Columbus module – exterior view

The Colum­bus mod­ule was per­ma­nent­ly con­nect­ed to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS) on 11 Febru­ary 2008. It was at­tached on the star­board side of the Har­mo­ny con­nec­tion node and put in­to op­er­a­tion. Colum­bus, Eu­rope’s con­tri­bu­tion to the ISS, is a mul­ti­pur­pose lab­o­ra­to­ry for re­search in mi­cro­grav­i­ty across a range of dis­ci­plines. The mod­ule is 6.9 me­tres long and has a di­am­e­ter of 4.5 me­tres.
Alexan­der Gerst ac­ti­vates EML and MagVec­tor/MFX
Image 2/4, Credit: NASA/ESA.

Alexander Gerst activates EML and MagVector/MFX

The Ger­man ESA as­tro­naut Alexan­der Gerst was on du­ty from 28 May to 10 Novem­ber 2014 for the ‘Blue Dot’ mis­sion on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS). Dur­ing the 165-day mis­sion, he was in­volved in 100 dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ments from all the ISS part­ners. In this im­age, Gerst is switch­ing on the ESA ex­per­i­ments EML and MagVec­tor/MFX in the Colum­bus lab­o­ra­to­ry.
Colum­bus mod­ule – lab­o­ra­to­ry at night
Image 3/4, Credit: NASA/ESA.

Columbus module – laboratory at night

In the Eu­ro­pean space lab­o­ra­to­ry on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS), up to three as­tro­nauts can work with 25 cu­bic me­tres of sci­en­tif­ic ex­per­i­ments. The in­te­ri­or of Colum­bus is equipped with 16 ex­per­i­ment racks, which house lab­o­ra­to­ry equip­ment, com­put­ers and tech­ni­cal sys­tems. They can ac­com­mo­date equip­ment weigh­ing up to 700 kilo­grams and can be re­placed as need­ed. Three ad­di­tion­al racks serve as stor­age space and house the in­fras­truc­ture, pri­mar­i­ly the pow­er sup­ply, da­ta dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem and wa­ter pumps, as well as the cli­mate con­trol and fire sup­pres­sion sys­tems.
The Colum­bus Con­trol Cen­ter in Oberp­faf­fen­hofen
Image 4/4, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

The Columbus Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen

The Colum­bus Con­trol Cen­ter is lo­cat­ed at DLR’s Ger­man Space Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter (GSOC) in Oberp­faf­fen­hofen and is in op­er­a­tion around the clock. The tasks of the con­trol cen­tre are nu­mer­ous: train­ing the op­er­a­tions per­son­nel, prepar­ing and ex­e­cut­ing mis­sion sim­u­la­tions, su­per­vis­ing and con­trol­ling the tech­ni­cal sys­tems of the Colum­bus lab­o­ra­to­ry and ex­per­i­ments on board the space sta­tion. In ad­di­tion, they are re­spon­si­ble for com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS), ground sta­tions and the us­er con­trol cen­tres, re­cep­tion, pro­cess­ing, dis­tri­bu­tion and eval­u­a­tion of da­ta, as well as op­er­a­tional plan­ning for on-board and ground ac­tiv­i­ties (mis­sion plan­ning).
  • Columbus, Europe's contribution to the ISS, celebrates its 10th anniversary
  • The space laboratory enables multidisciplinary research in microgravity
  • 161 ESA experiments have so far been carried out in the space laboratory
  • Focus: Space

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.

International collaboration

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.

  • Bernadette Jung
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Pub­lic Af­fairs and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions: Oberp­faf­fen­hofen, Augs­burg, Weil­heim
    Telephone: +49 8153 28-2251
    Fax: +49 8153 28-1243
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Weßling
  • Dr Dieter Sabath
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Space Op­er­a­tions and As­tro­naut Train­ing
    Telephone: +49 8153 28-2494
    Fax: +49 8153 28-1455

  • Volker Schmid
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Ger­man Space Agen­cy at DLR
    Hu­man Space­flight, ISS and Ex­plo­ration
    Telephone: +49 228 447-305
    Fax: +49 228 447-737
    Königswinterer Straße 522-524
    53227 Bonn
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