Zero-G Lab to Bolster Space Research
Although Columbus will be the smallest laboratory on board the International Space Station, it offers the same workspace volume as other science modules on orbit.
Credit: D. Ducros, ESA

When seven astronauts rocket into space this week aboard the shuttle Atlantis, they'll ferry a shiny new science laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS).

The zero-gravity European lab known as Columbus, which is about the size of a small bus at 27,000 pounds (12,250 kilograms), will carry four major experiments. Astronaut scientists visiting the module will investigate microgravity's impact on humans, explore the behavior of weightless fluids and see how materials fare in the merciless vacuum of space.

The polished cylindrical lab—more than 20 years in the making—will be the European Space Agency's (ESA) first module to be latched onto the space station, complementing U.S. and Russian rooms.

"Now we bring our own research module," said German astronaut Hans Schlegel, who will climb into a bulky spacesuit and help permanently latch Columbus onto the ISS on Sunday, if all goes as planned. "We will have the room and capabilities to conduct European science experiments around the clock."

Led by commander Stephen Frick and piloted by rookie spaceflyer Alan Poindexter, NASA is making Columbus' delivery a primary goal during their anticipated 11-day mission, slated to launch this Thursday.

Barrel-o-science

Although Columbus will have room for 16 half-moon-shaped racks, it will initially carry five experimental racks into space. Four of these will hold high-tech life sciences, medical and physics experiments, while another will serve as storage space.

The Biolab experimental rack will have astronauts peeking at microorganisms, tissue cultures and even small plants and animals. Understanding how plant roots grow in space, Laurini said, will be a cornerstone to exploring and inhabiting the moon and distant worlds.

"We have to think about moving to another planet or for a long exploration flight," he said. "We will ? probably [not] be able to carry everything we need to eat. The growth of the plants becomes a necessity and knowing how they behave in space is certainly important."

While astronauts scrutinize living things with Biolab, others will use the Fluid Science Laboratory to see how liquids behave in zero-gravity—perhaps bolstering energy production both in space and on Earth with their findings. The third laboratory rack, called the European Physiology Module, will be used investigate bone loss, respiration, immune system behavior and circulation in weightless humans in the future.

In addition to the internal units, two external units will allow space-faring scientists to see how living things and manmade materials react to the vacuum of space. Two more will follow once the tests finish.

Overall, Laurini said Columbus' internal environment—a spacious 2,648 cubic feet (75 cubic meters)—should provide an ideal environment for doing zero-g science.

"It's a really state-of-the-art facility. We are providing a very good environment for the crew," he said. "They will able to do their work in a very quiet environment. We had very stringent noise requirements [for Columbus]."

Built to last

Noise, however, wasn't the only concern of Columbus' designers—they had to build it to last roughly 10 years in the harsh space environment.

"The orbital debris environment is getting worse," Laurini said of the millions of pieces of tiny space junk drifting around the Earth. "We ? asked our contractor to make it tough." Laurini said EADS Astrium Space Transportation, who constructed most of the module, met the challenge.

Although Columbus is the lightest and smallest science laboratory for the ISS, it offers the same internal space due to specially reinforced, 0.16-inch-thick (4-millimeters) protective plates.

The lab's heavy power consumption, about 20 kilowatts during the running of several experiments, is significant. That's enough to power to run 200 lightbulbs rated at 100 watts, or roughly the homes of more than four, five-person households.

"It's a lot of power," he said, explaining that the lab will need the energy to run high-tech devices, such as cryogenically cooled sample chambers and on-orbit centrifuges.

The lab and the knowledge it's expected to bring will represent a stepping stone on "our direct way to leaving Earth to maybe inhabit the moon [and] Mars," Schlegel said.

Despite Columbus' historically delayed launch schedule, Laurini said Europe's excitement at the prospect of exploring new scientific realms is palpable.

"We have gone through very difficult times, but we have overcome them together," Laurini said of the 2003 loss of space shuttle Columbia, which ultimately postponed this module's launch. "We are all very excited for this."

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