Space station science

Setting up an experiment in the European Columbus laboratory

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01 April 2011

Construction of the International Space Station, the largest object ever to orbit Earth, is now almost completed. Although up to six crew are now able to live and work on board the Station, there is little time to relax and enjoy the view. Each astronaut has a busy schedule, which includes monitoring and carrying out scientific experiments.

Many of the European experiments take place inside ESA’s Columbus laboratory, where purpose-built racks have been installed. One of the main areas of interest is biological research. How and why does gravity influence the growth and development of living things?

Refrigerated centrifuge of HRF-2

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ESA’s Biolab is used for experiments on micro-organisms, cells, tissue cultures, small plants and small invertebrates, such as worms and crayfish.

Scientists are also able to study the behaviour of many different materials in microgravity. These include the growth of large crystals and the mixing of different molten metals to produce new alloys. On Earth, denser liquids sink, and warmer liquids rise, but this is not true in space. Even foam and flames grow and behave differently in space.

Some experiments take place outside Columbus, in open space. These include three instruments which have been measuring the Sun’s output of energy for the last three years. Their data are important because changes in solar activity may influence Earth’s climate. Various materials may also be exposed to the harsh space environment outside the Station.

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