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Columbus Injects Science Into Station

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Science  30 Nov 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5855, pp. 1374-1375
DOI: 10.1126/science.318.5855.1374

With Europe's Columbus laboratory on the launch pad—and Japan's research module due next year—our outpost in space is about to get a scientific makeover

CREDIT: NASA

Next week, Florida's weather and aging space-shuttle technology permitting, Europe's main contribution to the International Space Station (ISS) will thunder into orbit. The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Columbus laboratory, a multipurpose experimental module, should dramatically increase the capacity for research on the station—and perhaps quiet those who have called the space station a job-creation scheme for aerospace companies rather than a productive scientific platform.

The €1 billion Columbus, which will be attached to the space station during the course of the three spacewalks of the 11-day mission, is the crowning achievement of ESA's human space-flight effort—its first crewed facility in space. “Columbus opens a new page for us. Now we will have real estate in orbit,” says Bernardo Patti, ESA's Columbus project manager. But it has been a long and frustrating process for European scientists and engineers to get this far. Columbus arrives at the station some 5 years later than originally planned, because of construction delays and 2003's Columbia shuttle disaster. And, like the rest of the space station, Columbus is more modest than what was on ESA's drawing board early last decade.

Despite the scaled-back ambitions, European researchers believe Columbus will bring something new to the station. NASA's ability to use the space station as a laboratory has been hamstrung by the increasing cost of its construction, problems with the shuttle, and President George W. Bush's 2004 realignment of the U.S. agency toward exploring the moon and Mars. As a result, most NASA research on board the space station concerns the effects of long-duration space flights on the human body.

ESA managers say Columbus will restore part of the station's original rationale, providing a platform for basic research in biology, fluids, and materials, as well as for medical research and technological development. “We haven't followed the United States in narrowing our objectives,” says Alan Thirkettle, ESA's space-station program manager.

The launch next spring of the main part of Japan's Kibo laboratory should continue to expand the station's scientific potential, as will 2009's planned increase of the station's resident crew from three to six. This doubling, and dwindling construction demands upon the crew, should create “an order of magnitude more experiment time,” says Thirkettle. Adds physicist Gregor Morfill of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, “Columbus and the Japanese module will complete the transformation of the space station from a political point in space to a real laboratory.”

Standing tall.

Columbus is Europe's main contribution to ISS, but it came close to being left behind.

CREDIT: ESA/NASA

Indeed, with the words of space-station critics fresh in their minds, scientists and space-agency officials are hoping they can finally show what the station is capable of. “Now we have to prove ourselves,” says Patti.

Being there

After President Ronald Reagan formally invited international partners in 1984 to join NASA in building a space station, Europe developed a plan consisting of several elements: a laboratory attached to the station; a free-flying module that would house automated experiments and occasionally dock with the station for repairs and restocking; and a polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite that would share computer and communications technology with the station. European astronauts would travel to and from the station in Hermes, a minishuttle that could carry three people and 3 metric tons of cargo.

The first cost estimates produced by contractors in 1989 were much higher than ESA had expected, and European governments began to put the squeeze on ESA's space-station program. The Hermes shuttle and free-flying module were abandoned. The polar satellite was handed over to ESA's Earth observation directorate. The program that emerged in the mid-1990s comprised the Columbus module—smaller than originally planned but still containing 10 phone-booth-sized payload racks—and a series of pilotless cargo ships called Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Launched atop a European Ariane 5 rocket, an ATV would carry about 7.5 metric tons of air, water, food, fuel, scientific equipment, and personal items to resupply all parts of the station. Once emptied, filled with waste, and jettisoned, it would burn up on reentry. The first ATV is due to fly in February.

The ATV is also part of the complex barter arrangements through which NASA's international partners buy into the space station. “It pays our rent,” Thirkettle says. To reimburse NASA for the shuttle launch of Columbus, European companies have built two “nodes”: connecting modules for the station. The first is Node 2, also known as Harmony, which the shuttle carried aloft last month. Columbus and Japan's Kibo will both dock to Node 2. In addition, to pay for the air, water, power, and other station services that Columbus needs, five of its 10 payload racks will be devoted to NASA's use.

Although construction of the 19-metric-ton, 7-meter-long Columbus was well under way by the late 1990s, its trials were far from over. In 2001, with station costs spiraling out of control, legislators in Congress and NASA officials began to consider building the ISS to the minimum viable configuration. “They questioned the entire premise of the station and didn't give a damn for the partners,” says Thirkettle. The crisis passed, but delays in building Russian elements of the station bumped Columbus's planned launch from 2002 to 2004.

Then the Columbia shuttle disintegrated during reentry in February 2003, and all station construction was put on hold. Two years later, with the shuttle fleet still grounded, NASA again debated drastically cutting back the number of shuttle flights to complete the station. Some scenarios would have left Columbus and Kibo on the ground. “This lasted for a few weeks. It was very, very messy,” Thirkettle says.

But then, he notes, Michael Griffin was appointed NASA administrator and turned out to be a keen proponent of the station. As Science went to press, Columbus was in the hold of Atlantis and on the pad ready for a weeklong launch window starting 6 December.

A lab in space

Planning, designing, and building such a space facility takes roughly a decade, so Columbus's technology was never going to be cutting-edge. But the 5-year delay has made Columbus even more outdated, with computer technology and data-transfer speeds falling behind what's available on Earth. Patti says ESA has upgraded Columbus's avionics system and installed a 100-megabit-per-second computer network. Equipment with such speeds can now be bought in any computer store, but Columbus's network will still be the fastest in space.

Personnel issues have also been a challenge, as ESA tried to retain essential staff and keep “the scientific community on the ball and interested,” says Thirkettle. A significant number of researchers who prepared experiments for Columbus were Ph.D. students at the time and have since graduated and found other jobs.

Just as in the United States, many researchers in Europe think the science they get from a crewed facility in space is not worth the huge cost of building it. The money spent on the space station and Columbus, they argue, would have been better spent on robotic probes. Astronomers dislike the station, for example, because with whirring machinery and people moving around it isn't still enough to point a telescope accurately. “It goes up and down like a roller coaster,” says George Fraser, director of the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester in the U.K.

But Patti says many researchers in Europe, mostly at universities and government labs, are eager to conduct microgravity research. He hopes a few years of good results out of Columbus will trigger more curiosity among industrial researchers. According to Marc Heppener, head of science and applications in ESA's human space-flight directorate, the last call for experiment proposals in 2004 attracted three times as many as the agency could fund.

People power.

With Columbus (illustration) and a Japanese lab module in place, and larger crews by 2009, space-station science should take off.

CREDIT: D. DUCROS/ESA

Max Planck's Morfill attests to the promise of Columbus, having already had experiments performed by cosmonauts on the Russian segment of the station. His area of interest is “dusty plasmas,” microscopic particles mixed into a plasma that can be coaxed into repeating patterns, akin to a macroscopic crystal and other states of matter. These experiments could be automated, Morfill says, but “with cosmonauts doing the experiments, … you're able to go into regimes not anticipated before. It's been enormously successful. We've got 100 publications out of it.”

Columbus will take off with a full complement of experiments already installed. Its racks include a fluid science laboratory, a set of physiology modules, and a basic biology lab, among others. On the outside of Columbus, there are two sites for external experiments. Initially, one will hold a facility to expose various pieces of technology to the harsh conditions of space; the other will be home to a solar telescope.

Although some Columbus experiments will follow NASA's lead and examine the effects of microgravity on humans, many others will be more fundamental. “Columbus should return fascinating data that will advance physiological science in general,” says physiologist Kevin Fong of University College London, who has just completed a 9-month fellowship at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Experiments will look at, for example, how bone remodels after a break. Removing gravity allows researchers to see the remodeling process more clearly. “No one really understands this at a fundamental level,” Fong says.

Researchers in Japan are looking forward to a similarly eclectic mix of experiments once Kibo arrives at the station next year. The size of a luxury tour bus and weighing nearly 23 metric tons, Kibo, which means “hope” in Japanese, will be the biggest of the space station's research modules. It will take three shuttle flights to deliver all its components: a pressurized module with racks for experiments conducted by astronauts, an exposed platform, and an external storage compartment. Japanese scientists have plans for eight internal experiments covering various aspects of protein crystallization, fluid mechanics, and cell biology. Later, three payloads will be fixed to the exposed facility, including an x-ray scanner to catch novae and gamma ray bursts, an atmospheric monitor, and a material-exposure facility. “From the beginning, science was intended to be a key factor for the ISS. I'd like to see that direction pursued,” says astrophysicist Shoji Torii of Waseda University in Tokyo, who is designing an instrument for Kibo.

Once Columbus and Kibo are in place, fans of the space station will finally have a chance to do the unique science they promised. That opportunity is all ESA's Thirkettle wants. “I'm looking forward with anticipation, not trepidation,” to the launch of Columbus, he says. “Now we have an opportunity to really exploit this gorgeous piece of hardware.”

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