The Columbus laboratory is ESA's biggest single contribution to the International Space Station. The 4.5-metre diameter cylindrical module is equipped with flexible research facilities that offer extensive science capabilities.
During its 10-year projected lifespan, Earth-based researchers, together with the Station crew, will conduct thousands of experiments in life sciences, materials science, fluid physics and a whole host of other disciplines, all in weightlessness.
To keep costs low and reliability high, Columbus shares its basic structure and life-support systems with the Italian space agency's Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLM). But whereas the MPLM is aptly described as a 'space moving-van' - albeit a very sophisticated van - the 75 cubic metres of space inside Columbus contains an entire suite of science laboratories.
The Columbus laboratory has room for ten International Standard Payload Racks, eight in the sidewalls, and two in the ceiling.
Each rack is the size of a telephone booth and able to host its own autonomous and independent laboratory, complete with power and cooling systems, and video and data links back to researchers on Earth.
ESA has developed a range of payload racks, all tailored to squeeze the maximum amount of research from the minimum of space and to offer European scientists across a wide range of disciplines full access to a weightless environment that cannot possibly be duplicated on Earth.
Columbus was fitted with five internal payload racks at launch
- Biolab - supports experiments on micro-organisms, cells and tissue cultures, and even small plants and small insects.
- The European Physiology Modules Facility - a set of experiments that will be used to investigate the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. Experiment results will also contibute to an increased understanding of age-related bone loss, balance disorders and other ailments back on Earth.
- The Fluid Science Laboratory - accommodates experiments in the strange behaviour of weightless liquids. Bringing far-reaching benefits on Earth: better ways to clean up oil spills, for example, and improved manufacture of metals.
- The European Drawer Rack - a modular and flexible experiment carrier system for a large variety of scientific disciplines, providing basic accommodation and resources for experiment modules housed within standardised drawers and lockers.
- The European Transport Carrier - accommodates items for transport and stowage. In orbit it will serve as a workbench and stowage facility.
Outside its pressurised hull, Columbus has four mounting points for external payloads. Exposed to the vacuum of space, and with an unhindered view of Earth and outer space, science packages can investigate anything from the ability of bacteria to survive on an artificial meteorite to volcanic activity 400 km below on Earth.
Two external payloads were attached to the outside of Columbus shortly after the module was attached to the ISS:
- The European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) - carries experiments requiring exposure to the space environment.
- SOLAR - a platform with three scientific instruments to study solar-related phenomena.
On the ground
Columbus on ground involves researchers all over Europe, who are able to control their own experiments directly from several User Centres or even directly from their workplaces.
Their efforts are channelled through the Columbus Control Centre in Germany, which interfaces with the module itself and also ESA's partners in the United States.
Like the navigator after whom it was named, Columbus is set for a long journey of exploration. But thanks to broadband telecommunications, hundreds of explorers will be able to work aboard during its 10-year mission.
Columbus launched on 7 February 2008 with Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-122.