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The European Space Agency Columbus laboratory is ESA's biggest single contribution to the International Space Station. Columbus is currently scheduled for launch on Space Shuttle flight STS-122 in December 2007.

Columbus Module Picture from 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 International Space Station crew, will be able to conduct thousands of experiments in life sciences, materials science, fluid physics and a whole host of other disciplines, all in the weightlessness of orbit.
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 moving van - the 75 cubic metres of space inside Columbus contains an entire suite of science laboratories.

Payload racks

The Columbus laboratory has room for ten International Standard Payload Racks (ISPRs), eight situated in the sidewalls, and two in the ceiling area.

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. The Biolab, for example, supports experiments on micro-organisms, cells and tissue cultures, and even small plants and small insects.

Another rack contains the European Physiology Modules Facility (EPM), a set of experiments that will be used to investigate the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. Experiment results will also contribute to an increased understanding of age-related bone loss, balance disorders and other ailments back on Earth.

The Material Science Laboratory Electromagnetic Levitator (MSL-EML) is a facility for the melting and solidification of conductive metals, alloys or semi-conductors and a Fluid Science Laboratory (FSL) will accommodate experiments in the strange behaviour of weightless liquids. These too, could bring far-reaching benefits on Earth: better ways to clean up oil spills, for example, and even improved manufacture of optical lenses.

Outside its comfortable, pressurized hull, Columbus has four mounting points for external payloads. Exposed to the vacuum of space, and with an unhindered view of the 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 the Earth.

Columbus on the ground will involve researchers all over Europe, who will be able to control their own experiments directly from several User Centres or even directly from their workplaces. Their efforts will be channelled through the Columbus Control Centre in Germany, which will interface with the module itself and also ESA's NASA partners in the United States.

Like the Genoese navigator for whom it was named, Columbus is set for a long journey of exploration. But thanks to broadband telecommunications, hundreds - perhaps thousands - of explorers will be able to work aboard during its 10-year mission.


Total module length: 6 871 mm
Largest diameter: 4 477 mm
Total internal volume: 75 m3
Total volume of payload racks: 25 m3
Mass without payload: 10 275 kg
Launch mass: 12 775 kg (2500 kg payload)
Maximum payload mass: 9 000 kg (maximum)
Maximum on orbit mass: 21 000 kg


ESA chose EADS Astrium Space Transportation as prime contractor for Columbus. The laboratory was integrated at its facilities in Bremen, Germany. On May 27, 2006 Columbus was flown from Bremen to Kennedy Space Center on board an Airbus Beluga.


Europe's Space Programme: To Ariane and Beyond
by Brian Harvey

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Updated: Tuesday 1st, April, 2014

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