Europeans Eager to Launch Orbital Science Lab

Europeans Eager to Launch Orbital Science Lab
The Columbus laboratory is ESA's biggest contribution to the International Space Station (ISS).
(Image: © D. Ducros, ESA)

CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. ? Europe's bus-sized science lab will soon make its zero-gravitydebut after the launch of NASA's space shuttle Atlantis tomorrow, weatherpermitting.

Atlantiswill ferry the 10.3-tonmodule to the International Space Station (ISS), where astronauts will attachit and make way for space-based science experiments throughout the next sevenyears. NASA intended Columbus to reach orbit in early December, but the agency postponedits launch to address problems with fuel gauge-like sensors in Atlantis'external fuel tank.

"We'rereally looking forward to getting Columbus on orbit to become an on-orbitmember of the space station club," said Alan Thirkettle, ISS programmanager for the European Space Agency (ESA). He noted that getting two ESAastronauts ? Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts ? into space with the module willalso be a moment of triumph.

"They'rea real focal point not just of excitement but for inspiration as well,"Thirkettle said, noting that children across Europe are closely following theSTS-122 mission.

If inclementweather prompts mission managers to postpone Atlantis' space shot at2:45 p.m. EST (1945 GMT) tomorrow, Columbuswill hitch a ride into orbit Friday or Saturday afternoon.

Zero-gravitylab

Columbus, which looks somewhat like anover-sized aluminum can, boasts about 2,648 cubic feet (75 cubic meters) ofspace within its polished shell. Thirkettle explained that this volume accommodates16 phone-booth racks as well as fourplatforms outside.

"Weget a lot of bang for our buck with the launch," Thirkettle said. The ESA spent about 880 million Euros ($1.3 billion) to build the lab.

Thirkettle couldn't say how many scientists hope to perform experiments vicariously through on-station astronauts, but did say there will be "a lot."

"Wewill, in fact, be getting science back from the Columbus laboratory data backwithin a week or 10 days of it's launching," he said. "That'ssomething we're very excited and very pleased about."

Someassembly required

Commandedby Stephen Frick, the seven-astronaut crew of the STS-122mission will help piece Columbus together next week.

Missionspecialist Rex Walheim will lead the assembly tasks during three plannedspacewalks, two of which are dedicated to Columbus assembly.

ESAastronaut Hans Schlegel will assist Walheim on thefirst spacewalk to snugly attach the lab to the Harmony module, also knownas Node 2. Mission specialist Stan Love will help Walheim outfit Columbus' twoexternal experiments and other devices on the third spacewalk.

Pilot AlanPoindexter and mission specialist Leland Melvin will join Frickand the other astronauts during their 11-day mission.

Thirkettlesaid he can't wait for the orbital work to commence.

"It'llbe nice to be part of the European Space Agency," Thirkettle said. "We'vebeen part of a 'European Ground Agency' for a long time, as far as [the] spacestation is concerned."

NASAwill broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com'sSTS-122 mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: NASA's STS-122: Columbus Sets Sail for ISS
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  • VIDEO: ISS Commander Peggy Whitson Takes Charge

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