Japan Prepares Space Station's Largest Laboratory for Flight
This artist's interpretation depicts the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory fully assembled at the International Space Station (ISS).
Credit: JAXA.

Pieces of the largest laboratory to launch towards the International Space Station (ISS) are coming together and Japan couldn’t be happier.

More than two-thirds of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Kibo laboratory awaits NASA shuttle rides to the space station early next year at the U.S. agency’s Cape Canaveral, Florida spaceport. Altogether, engineers are poring over two JAXA pressurized modules and a robotic arm as they await next year’s delivery of external experiment platform to complete Kibo, also known as the station’s Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

“JEM is the first Japanese human [spaceflight] facility,” Kichiro Imagawa, JAXA’s JEM development project manager, told SPACE.com in an interview. “I think it’s very important for Japan to develop them and launch them successfully.”

JAXA has spent about $3 billion developing Kibo, whose name means ‘Hope,’ Imagawa said. The laboratory’s total cost, however, is about twice that when including the module’s planned orbital operations and ground mission control center in the Space Station Operations Facility at Tsukuba Space Center, which sits just north of Tokyo in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, he added.

The first piece of JAXA’s laboratory was slated to launch towards the ISS in December of this year, though NASA pushed the flight to February 2007 following delays with its next shuttle mission, STS-117 aboard Atlantis.

“We at JAXA have been waiting for JEM’s launch for more than 10 years, so two more months of delay is not a big problem,” Imagawa said.

Assembling Kibo

It will take some three space shuttle flights and a series of spacewalks between 2008 and 2009 to completely install Kibo at the ISS once NASA’s Harmony connector node and Europe’s Columbus laboratory are delivered later this year.

That orbital train begins with NASA’s STS-123 mission slated to haul the laboratory’s pressurized experiment logistics module to orbit aboard Endeavour on Feb. 14 next year.

“In the coming year, we will work very hard in order to have a successful mission,” JAXA astronaut Takao Doi, who will serve as an STS-123 mission specialist during the upcoming flight, said in a statement after his assignment to the flight earlier this year. “With Kibo being assembled in space, we in Japan will be entering into an exciting new era of Japanese space development.”

Among the biggest hurdles for Kibo’s development was ensuring it was safe for human occupants, JAXA officials said.

“The human facility is very much directed by the safety issues,” Koki Oikawa, JAXA’s JEM development project function manager, told SPACE.com. “JAXA didn’t [originally] have that kind of understanding for crew safety…I think that was one of the most challenging requirements.”

Piece by piece

The heart of JAXA’s Kibo laboratory is its cylindrical Pressurized Module.

About the size of a large tour bus, the module runs 36.7 feet (11.2 meters) long, 14.4 feet (4.4 meters) wide and includes enough interior room for 23 racks -- 10 of them dedicated to orbital experiments -- according to a NASA description.

Kibo’s smaller pressurized storage pod, known as the Experiment Logistics Module, is the same width as its larger counterpart but only 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) long, enough room for about eight experiment racks. It is slated launch towards the ISS during the STS-123 mission.

The Pressurized Module is due to follow during NASA’s STS-124 mission on April 24, 2008 with Kibo’s 33-foot (10-meter) main robotic arm and will be followed by a smaller, 6.2-foot (1.9-meter) appendage.

JAXA’s external platform, the Exposed Facility, will round out the laboratory in 2009. At 13.1 feet (four meters) long and around 17 feet (or about five meters) wide and tall, the facility is large enough to hold 10 experiments at a time for space materials and exposure tests.

Japanese astronauts gear up

Following Doi to the ISS will be JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, who will help install the massive 35,000-pound (15,900-kilogram) Pressurized Module during NASA’s STS-124 mission.

Veteran JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata will then become Japan’s first long-duration spaceflyer when he join’s the space station’s Expedition 18 crew in mid-2008, NASA has said. JAXA spaceflyer Soichi Noguchi, who flew aboard the Discovery orbiter during NASA’s STS-114 mission in July 2005, is Wakata’s backup.

The astronauts have been training alongside Russian cosmonaut and Expedition 18 flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov and other crewmembers for the upcoming spaceflight, which will be commanded by NASA spaceflyer Mike Fincke.

“It’s important for us to assembly our modules to ISS and have it done by our own astronauts,” Imagawa said of Kibo’s construction. “It’s very important for the Japanese people. It’s a symbol, our JEM.”

Author Bio
Tariq Malik
Tariq Malik, Space.com Managing Editor

Tariq joined Purch's Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter and on Facebook.