The Eu­ro­pean Colum­bus Lab­o­ra­to­ry

Columbus, Europe's contribution to the International Space Station ISS, is a multi-purpose laboratory for multi-disciplinary research under microgravity conditions. It was permanently attached to the ISS and put into operation on 11 February 2008. It is 6.9 metres long with a diameter of 4.5 metres.

Columbus has greatly expanded the range of possible activities that can be carried out on the ISS compared to the capabilities available during its early utilisation phase. The laboratory is used by European astronauts for a variety of research purposes. German contributions include the Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for the ISS (MELFI) for cooling biological samples to minus 80 degrees Celsius, and the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), a workstation used to conduct research – both developed by the space company Airbus in Friedrichshafen.

There are four platforms on the outer wall of the laboratory to which experiments can be attached. This offers researchers the opportunity to expose their experimental set-ups directly to outer space and its unique conditions – vacuum, space radiation, temperatures approaching absolute zero and microgravity. Observation of Earth and the Sun is also possible from here.

The European Space Agency (ESA) also uses Columbus for industrial and commercial purposes. The European Columbus Control Centre manages the operation of the laboratory. It is part of the German Aerospace Center's (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) German Space Operations Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen.

As the primary contractor for Columbus, EADS Space Transportation in Bremen oversaw a consortium of 41 companies from 14 countries, which were responsible for the development, manufacturing, integration and testing. The total cost of the module, including the test facilities, was 880 million euros. Of this, approximately 450 million euros were funded through German industry.

Structure of the Columbus module

In the Columbus research laboratory, up to three astronauts can work on experiments in a space of 25 cubic metres. The outer wall of Columbus consists of several layers of aluminium, Kevlar and Nextel. These materials protect the laboratory from damage by micrometeoroids, space debris and cosmic radiation, as well as insulate against the extreme temperatures.

The interior of Columbus is equipped with ten experimental shelves, known as racks, which house laboratory equipment, computers and technical systems in a similar way to built-in cabinets. Each rack can hold experimental equipment weighing up to 500 kilograms. The racks have their own power supply, cooling systems and video and data links.

Racks can be exchanged or replaced as necessary. Although Columbus is the smallest of the six laboratory modules on the ISS, it can accommodate as many experiments in terms of volume, data capacity and energy consumption as the other laboratories. Researchers on Earth can intervene directly in some of the experiments and retrieve their data via remote control.

Six other racks serve as storage space and for systems such as power supply, data distribution, water pumps and climate control and fire extinguishing systems. This allows the crew to vary the temperature in the lab between 16 and 30 degrees Celsius. Columbus receives fresh air from the connecting Node 2 (Harmony), to which the laboratory is docked. Here, the air is treated and purified of carbon dioxide. The solar panels on the space station supply Columbus with 20 kilowatts of electricity, 13.5 kilowatts of which are available for the research facilities.

Graphic of the European ISS laboratory Columbus
This graphic shows which experiment facility is located where in the Columbus module (as of the end of 2021).

The research racks of the European Columbus space laboratory



Bartolomeo External platform

Bartolomeo is the first commercial European external platform on the ISS. Up to eleven experimental units are available to companies to conduct their own research. Bartolomeo offers an unobstructed view of Earth and deep space, experiment control from Earth via high-speed data link and the possibility to return samples.


In the Biolab, researchers can study microorganisms, cell cultures and tissue samples, as well as small plants or animals, to better understand the role of gravity in the development and growth of organisms.

European Physiology Modules (EPM)

With the help of the EPM rack, astronauts conduct tests to analyse the behaviour of the human body in microgravity. Examples include bone atrophy, fluid circulation, breathing, organ functionality, the immune system and brain activity.

European Drawer Rack 1 (EDR 1)

EDR 1 is used for the flexible installation of smaller experiments from a variety of research areas.

European Drawer Rack 2 (EDR 2)

EDR 2 comprises three experiments. A 3D printer for additive manufacturing of metal parts – a process used to build structures in space. VIP-GRAN investigates how particles behave in microgravity to help us understand the underlying physics in detail. The Heat Transfer Host is used for research on heat transfer via air and liquids.

Express Rack 3

The Express Rack measures the smallest accelerations and vibrations of the ISS. Like the two HRF racks, it is operated by NASA's Payload Operations and Integration Center (POIC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

Fluid Science Laboratory (FSL)

The FSL rack provides insights into the complicated behaviour of fluids under space conditions and is intended to contribute to improvements in areas such as energy generation and the effectiveness of propellants. Under microgravity conditions, effects such as deposition, stratification, pressure and gravity-dependent buoyancy are cancelled out, so that the dynamic effects of fluids can be more precisely studied.

Human Research Facility 1 (HRF 1)

An ultrasound device is integrated into HRF-1, which researchers use to study changes in the human body caused by microgravity. The device is also used to conduct regular checks on crew members. HRF-1 also contains the SLAMMD space scale which measures the resistance exerted by a crew member's body when they are in motion. Based on this, software calculates the mass of the astronaut.

Human Research Facility 2 (HRF 2)

HRF-2 is a device that can measure astronaut lung function using various parameters. It also contains a freezer that can be used to keep crew blood samples frozen before they are taken to the medical teams on the ground for further analysis. A centrifuge is used for this purpose, with which, for example, blood components can be kept separated.

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Michael Müller

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Linder Höhe, 51147 Cologne
Tel: +49 2203 601-3717

Volker Schmid

ISS Specialist Group Leader, Head of the Cosmic Kiss Mission
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
German Space Agency at DLR
Science and Exploration
Königswinterer Straße 522-524, 53227 Bonn