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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 10:48 GMT
Columbus: Europe's orbital outpost
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News

Artist's impression of the Columbus Laboratory. Image: Esa/D. Ducros.
Columbus is a new module for the International Space Station
Columbus is Europe's first permanent base in space.

The 12.8-tonne, 1.3bn euro ($1.8bn; 0.9bn) Columbus module will carry out studies that would be impossible in the gravity experienced at the Earth's surface.

After years of delay, the European module is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center this week aboard the US space shuttle Atlantis.

"It is the end of the beginning," says Alan Thirkettle, International Space Station (ISS) programme manager at the European Space Agency (Esa).

Columbus' arrival at the station two days after launch will mark the end of an arduous, 12-year campaign to establish an outpost for Europe on the final frontier.

The majority of scientific research that will be done on Columbus is dedicated to fields that are of interest to our life here on Earth
Thomas Reiter, astronaut
"The phase of the space station so far has been one of engineering and the development of hardware," relates Esa director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain.

But once Columbus is operational and the space station crew has been increased from three to six, he explains, Europe can truly begin reaping the benefits of its investment in the ISS.

"To make scientific progress you have to repeat and repeat an experiment. And the only way to repeat experiments over and over is to have continuous access to these capabilities.

"With Columbus, we will have continuous access."

Infographic, BBC

The 7m-long (24ft), 4.5m-wide (14ft) lab will be lifted out of the shuttle's cargo bay by the space station's robotic arm and attached to the Harmony Node 2 module on the ISS.

"When we're on orbit, the first thing we will do is commission the module and make sure that it works okay," says Alan Thirkettle.

Columbus on Space Shuttle (Esa)

"This won't take more than three or four weeks. From that moment onwards, we acquire rights and we acquire obligations."

The obligations are that Esa carries out flights of its new logistics spacecraft, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), to the ISS roughly once every 12 months.

As rights, Esa gets a percentage of space station crew time and also flight opportunities.

European astronauts currently get one six-month flight every two years, but Esa is negotiating to acquire flights currently allocated to the Italian Space Agency (Asi), which would give it access to the ISS once a year.

Columbus (Eads Astrium)

The orbital lab is equipped with 10 experiment racks, each about the size of a telephone booth. Eight of these are situated in the side walls and two in the ceiling.

In addition, Columbus will carry two experiment payloads on the outside of its pressurised hull.

Payloads are partly geared towards investigating the problems humans would face on missions to Mars.

But, explains Thomas Reiter, a European astronaut and executive at the German Aerospace Center (DLR): "The majority of scientific research that will be done on Columbus is dedicated to fields that are of interest to our life here on Earth.

The Columbus laboratory certainly doesn't address any fundamental questions in science
Steven Weinberg
"That is especially true for materials science, for biology, physics, chemistry and human physiology," he tells BBC News.

"There are many human diseases which are not yet fully understood, and research in microgravity could make a contribution in understanding the roots of some diseases rather than just the symptoms."

One such investigation planned for Columbus will examine the effects of weightlessness on the immune system, which plays important roles in numerous diseases, including cancers and Aids.

Certain effects of the immune system are activated or deactivated in different gravity environments. Understanding how weightlessness affects the immune system might help researchers to develop new strategies for tackling disease.

Addressing fundamentals

Other experiments could help advance understanding of osteoporosis, lead to improvements in the aluminium casting process - which is crucial in the motor industry - and result in food crops that are more resistant to disease and drought.

Artist's impression of Biolab. Image: Esa/D. Ducros
Biolab - supports experiments on microbes, cell and tissue cultures, small plants and insects.
European Physiology Modules Facility (EPM) - a set of experiments to investigate the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body
Fluid Science Laboratory (FSL) - will be used to study how fluids behave in microgravity
European Drawer Rack (EDR) - a carrier system designed to house experimental modules in drawers and lockers
European Transport Carrier (ETC) - will serve as a workbench and stowage facility
However, some researchers are less than enthusiastic about the scientific value of investigations carried out on Columbus.

"The Columbus laboratory certainly doesn't address any fundamental questions in science - in astronomy or fundamental physics, for instance," says Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist from the University of Texas, Austin.

"It is really an exercise in technology. [And] I think a lot of the work is aimed at improving our knowledge of microgravity, which doesn't seem to me very important unless you're going to be spending a lot of time in space for some other reason.

"Since I think manned spaceflight is not a cost-effective way of doing science, I'm not impressed by that sort of research."

Professor Weinberg said an experiment originally designated for the space station called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which carries a price tag above $1bn, might now be mothballed due to limited space on the few remaining shuttle flights before Nasa retires the orbiter in 2010.

Many in the physics community regarded this cosmic ray detection experiment as capable of providing important new insights into the Universe.

European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) - carries experiments requiring exposure to the space environment
SOLAR - a platform with three scientific instruments to study Sun-related phenomena
The Columbus project was hit by several hold-ups in space station construction which allowed its costs to rise.

The first of these occurred between 1996 and 2000 and was due to Russian delays in launching the space station's main control and habitation module, Zvezda.

Further delay resulted from the destruction of space shuttle Columbia in 2003, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts. The US space agency spent two years and more than $1bn fixing the shuttle for a return to flight in 2005.

However, the shuttle fleet was swiftly grounded again for a further year after the same problem responsible for dooming Columbia - foam shedding from the external fuel tank - re-emerged on the 2005 mission.

According to Alan Thirkettle, a cost overrun of just 4% in these circumstances was acceptable and displayed good management of the project.

Michael Menking, senior vice-president at EADS Astrium, the prime contractor on Columbus, said the delays had an upside.

"They gave us the opportunity to prepare for installing an additional communications terminal inside Columbus at some point in the future. We were also able to carry out extra tests on the internal and external payloads," he told BBC News.

Esa will use a dedicated centre in southern Germany to control activities on Columbus.

Astronauts get ready for Columbus
25 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
Europe set for major space campaign
15 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature
Europe mulls human launch system
02 Jul 07 |  Science/Nature
Nasa delays Europe's lab launch
18 Apr 07 |  Science/Nature
Europe set for bigger station role
17 Jul 06 |  Science/Nature
Send-off for Europe's space lab
02 May 06 |  Science/Nature

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