Columbus Space Lab Revives European Weightless Research
The European Space Agency's Columbus lab takes center stage in this view from the outside of the International Space Station taken during the STS-122 mission.
Credit: NASA.

PARIS - With fresh money from its member governments and an apparently renewed enthusiasm among microgravity scientists, the European Space Agency (ESA) expects to send out requests for ideas by midyear on how to use Europe's Columbus laboratory aboard the International Space Station in the coming years.

The arrival of Columbus at the space station in February 2008, and the successful docking and undocking of Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier, have rekindled enthusiasm for microgravity experiments, ESA Human Spaceflight Director Simonetta DiPippo said. "What we have seen is a rapid increase in the number of experiment proposals compared to several years ago," she said.

ESA governments in November agreed to spend 285 million euros ($370.3 million) on microgravity missions between 2009 and 2011. In addition to funding hardware to be sent to the space station, the money will pay for parabolic flights of candidate experiments aboard Europe's Airbus 300 Zero-G jet aircraft, and for other ground-based experiment settings.

Germany, which is leading Europe's space station work - but for awhile appeared to have lost its enthusiasm - has a renewed appetite for station-related investment and not only through ESA.

In December, the German Aerospace Center, DLR, agreed to a joint development with the China Manned Space Engineering Office of experiments to be launched aboard China's Shenzhou 8 manned capsule in 2011. DLR said the agreement, covering 17 medical and biological experiments, is just the start of a long-term collaboration with China's manned space program.

ESA for now has not joined China on any manned space projects, but remains open to the possibility. But the agency is pushing ahead on several fronts that could move Europe closer to its own astronaut-carrying capability.

The approval of the microgravity funding package was one of several programs relating to astronauts that ESA governments agreed to back. The others include:

  • 1.37 billion euros to assure ESA meets its obligation to the international space station's lead agency, NASA, to provide four more ATV flights between now and 2015. This financing will not pay for all four ATVs and their Ariane 5 launch vehicles, because ESA governments wanted to wait for clarification from NASA on how long the station will be operated. But at the insistence of Germany, ESA governments agreed that complementary funding would be made available if ATV contracting teams work faster than expected and need more funding before 2011. 
  • 27 million euros to study modifications needed to permit the ATV cargo carrier, which is filled with garbage and  destroyed in a controlled atmospheric re-entry after spending up to six months at the station, to return cargo to Earth. Contracts for this work are scheduled to be let starting in mid-2009, DiPippo said.
  •  5 million euros to investigate ways to work with Russia on a new crew transport vehicle. Gone for now is any idea of a major joint venture to produce a successor to Russia's Soyuz capsule.

ESA and Russia spent three years in stop-and-start negotiations on such an idea, but European government officials said squabbling over work share among European companies, combined with technology-export restrictions in Russia and Europe, helped scuttle the proposal.

Another problem was that the European side had been tentatively assigned the job of designing a service module for the crewed vehicle that used a future Russian rocket, now being designed, as the point of reference. Europe wanted to work on hardware that would use ATV as a starting point, and Europe's Ariane 5 rocket as the presumed launcher.

But with European governments still hesitant about embarking on their own program to assure autonomy in manned access to space, ESA officials are continuing to explore ways to work with Russia on a crew transport system.

  • 11.5 million euros to begin work on a lunar lander. While not an astronaut program at the outset, ESA is funding this work with a view to participating in a global exploration effort to the Moon, and to Mars. An exploration conference in June in Prague is expected to refine an ongoing coordination among 14 space powers, including the United States, Russia, China, Japan and India as well as Europe, in future exploration plans.

Germany is financing most of the ESA lunar-lander study, with Portugal also participating in the work. The lander design will assume a launch aboard Europe's Ariane 5 rocket. 

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