ISS Utilization: Columbus Module of ESA
The Columbus laboratory is ESA's biggest single contribution to the International Space Station. The 4.5 m diameter cylindrical module of 6.9 m in length is equipped with flexible research facilities that offer extensive science capabilities. The Columbus module provides internal accommodation for experiments in the field of multidisciplinary research into material science, fluid physics and life science. In addition, an external payload facility hosts experiments and applications in the field of space science, Earth observation and technology demonstrations. 1) 2) 3) 4)
Table 1: Overview of some Columbus laboratory parameters 5)
Launch: The Columbus module was launched on Shuttle flight STS-122 (assembly flight 1E of Atlantis) of NASA on February 7, 2008 (13 day mission). 6)
On February 11, 2008 (four days after launch), the Columbus module was attached to the starboard side of the Node 2 module of ISS. The Columbus module is permanently docked to the ISS with an expected life of 10 years.
Figure 1: Illustration of the STS-122 payload hardware in the Shuttle bay (image credit: NASA)
Orbit of ISS: Near-circular LEO (Low Earth Orbit), nominal altitude range of 340-460 km, inclination = 51.6º, ~16 orbits/day. Each successive orbit crosses the equator 22.5º to the west of the preceding orbit. The nodal regression is ~5º west/day, and the solar β angle is between 0º and ±75º. As an observation platform, ISS covers ~85% of Earth's surface and ~95% of the population.
ISS attitude characteristics for Earth observation:
• Torque equilibrium attitude during normal operations (~ 10º nose down and a few degrees nose left, no role with respect to LVLH (Local Vertical / Local Horizontal)
• LVLH during docking operations and maneuvers.
The ISS attitude is measured with star trackers and rate gyros:
• During nominal operations:
- The attitude is measured with a periodicity of ~±0.5º in each axis over one orbit (smooth sinusoidal variation)
- The attitude can be predicted up with accuracy of approx 0.2º for up to 4 days.
• During docking and/or maneuver periods:
- Attitude variations of several degrees possible during docking operations
- Maneuvers (reboots): ~2-3º variation during a short period (1-2 orbits).
Figure 2: Schematic view of the ISS with some orbit and attitude parameter conventions (image credit: ESA, NASA, Ref. 1)
Figure 3: NASA photo showing a portion of the the ISS (image credit: ESA)
Figure 4: External view of the Columbus laboratory (image credit: ESA)
Figure 5: Artist's cut-away view of the Columbus module elements (image credit: ESA)
Some background of the Columbus program:
In the early 1980s, NASA started to persue the objective of developing a continuously manned station in low Earth orbit. Actually, the idea had been around for many years and had long been a part of NASA's plans. Obviously, such a large program was only realizable on the basis of an international partnership. This was still the era of the Cold War.
The Columbus history began in Rome, Italy in January 1985, when ESA approved the eponymous Columbus program. The plan then was to build three modules: an Attached Pressurized Module (APM) to dock with the space station, a Man-Tended Free-Flyer (MTFF) to float freely in space and conduct microgravity experiments away from the mass of the space station, and an autonomous platform in polar orbit for Earth observation. In the end, only the APM module, now called Columbus, has been realized. 7)
The following agreements represent important steps in the Columbus (and ISS) development program:
- On September 29, 1988, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on cooperation in the design and development of the Space Station Freedom was signed by NASA and ESA in Washington D. C. 8)
- In the early 1990s, the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the member states of ESA (European Space Agency) started negotiations for the construction of a space station, this time an international one, initially called Alpha, but later renamed to International Space Station (ISS).
- The approval of Europe's participation in the ISS program which included Columbus, came in October 1995 at the ESA Ministerial Council in Toulouse, France. This approval lead to the signing of the contract to develop Columbus with the prime contractor EADS-Astrium in March 1996 (formerly Daimler Benz Aerospace, and the former MBB-ERNO, Bremen, Germany). 9) 10)
- In March 1997, ESA and NASA signed a MOU enabling "early utilization opportunities" of the International Space Station. The agreement formalized exchanges of goods and/or services between the participating parties without a corresponding financial transaction, i.e. without an exchange of funds. 11) 12)
The launch of Columbus is also covered by the same barter agreement with NASA signed on 5 March 1997. Originally, Columbus would have been launched on an Ariane 5 vehicle, though downscaling of the laboratory and the cost saving influence of using the MPLM (Multi-Purpose Logistics Module) principle structure for Columbus lead to the switch to a Shuttle launch. Under this agreement, in exchange for NASA launching Columbus and its initial payload aboard the Space Shuttle, ESA provides two of the Station's three Nodes (ISS connecting modules), spares and sustaining engineering for the Laboratory Support Equipment items provided by ESA to NASA under the Early Utilization Memorandum of Understanding, and hardware/support for software development and integration in the NASA ground software test and integration facilities for the ISS. ESA also placed responsibility for developing Nodes-2 and -3 with ASI (Italian Space Agency) in order to utilize the same structural concept as the MPLMs and Columbus.
- In 1997, ESA and ASI signed an agreement to cooperate on the development of manned space modules. Under this arrangement, ESA would provide the Columbus-derived ECLS (Environmental Control and Life Support) equipment for ASI's three MPLMs (Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules), which were developed for NASA by ASI to be used as pressurized cargo containers to travel in the Shuttle cargo bay. In exchange, ASI would provide the Columbus primary structure, derived from that of the MPLM.
- On January 29, 1998, a multilateral agreement was signed in Washington between the United States government and the governments of: Canada, Member States of ESA, Japan, and the Russian Federation - concerning cooperation on the civil International Space Station. The object of this Agreement was to establish a long-term international cooperative framework among the Partners, on the basis of genuine partnership, for the detailed design, development, operation, and utilization of a permanently inhabited civil international Space Station for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law. 13)
- In 1998 the PDR (Preliminary Design Review) of Columbus was done on schedule. This lead to the start of CDRs (Critical Design Reviews) for equipment and subsystems. Interfaces were defined with NASA between Columbus and the Shuttle, the overall ISS and the payload racks which house, for example, the Columbus experiment facilities.
- On March 31, 2003 ESA signed a contract with DLR to develop the Columbus Control Center at the German Aerospace Center in Oberpfaffenhofen. Under this contract DLR is responsible for the development and integration of the CCC including the operations of the European ground infrastructure on behalf of ESA. DLR took also responsibility for management of the center and to coordinate and support all on-orbit operations of the Columbus laboratory on behalf of ESA.
- In July 2004, ESA signed an ISS exploitation agreement with EADS-Astrium (formerly EADS Space Transportation). The contract covers initial exploitation activities, in particular preparations for the operations of Columbus. Regarding the initial exploitation activities, the contract dealt with the European experiment facilities for the ISS as well as with the experimental program to be executed by the astronauts onboard the Station. The contract also covers activities in the fields of the European flight control team and crew training, ground facility maintenance and engineering support for Columbus. - Part of the contract included the production of the ATVs (Automated Transfer Vehicles), the European spacecraft, which will act as an ISS cargo ship, and further be used for reboosting the ISS to higher orbital altitudes to counter the effects of atmospheric drag and remove waste from the station.
- Columbus payload rack agreement: ESA signed a hardware exchange agreement with JAXA (former NASDA) of Japan. Within the framework of this MOU, JAXA provided ESA with 12 International Standard Payload Racks (ISPRs) for use in the Columbus laboratory on the ISS. In exchange, ESA provided JAXA with one MELFI (Minus Eighty degree Celsius Laboratory Freezer for ISS) system, identical to those developed by ESA for NASA, in the context of the early utilization MOU (Ref. 9). 14)
The construction of the Columbus module was done by the European industry with EADS-Astrium as prime contractor. After being assembled in Bremen, Germany, the Columbus module was transported to the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FLA, USA on May 27, 2006, aboard a Beluga Airbus. 15)
The launch of Columbus was initially planned for late 2004, but the catastrophic disintegration of the US Space Shuttle Columbia over Texas on February 1, 2003 delayed deployment by more than three years.
Columbus module - internal experiments:
The Columbus module is pressurized providing a laboratory environment for up to three astronauts.
• Biology facility: WAICO (Waving and Coiling of Arabidopsis Roots), testing of the effect that gravity has on the spiralling motion (circumnutation) that occurs in plant roots. 16)
• EMCS (European Modular Cultivation System), an ESA experiment facility dedicated to biological investigations in weightlessness.
• Geoflow-2, is an experiment of the FSL (Fluid Science Laboratory) rack of Columbus. Investigation of the flow of an incompressible viscous fluid (silicone oil) held between two concentric spheres. It is considered of importance in such areas as flow in the atmosphere, the oceans, and the movement of Earth's mantle on a global scale as well as other astrophysical and geophysical problems having spherical geometry flows shaped by rotation and convection. - The Geoflow-2 experiment was brought to space with ATV-2 (launch Feb. 16, 2011) and installed in the FSL rack on 27 February 2011.
Figure 6: Photo of the Geoflow-2 experiment (image credit: ESA)
• Human physiology: The objective of the project is to demonstrate the efficiency of this technique as an early detection of impairment in bone remodelling and ultimately to provide information on the mechanics underlying bone loss and to accurately evaluate the efficiency of relevant countermeasures.
• Chromosome-2: Study of chromosome changes and sensitivity to radiation in lymphocytes (white blood cells) of ISS crew members.
• Neocytolysis (selective destruction of young red blood cells): This experiment covers the effects of weightlessness on the hemopoietic system: the system of the body responsible for the formation of blood cells.
• Radiation dosimetry experiment ALTCRISS (Alteino Long Term monitoring of Cosmic Rays on the International Space Station) is an ESA experiment to study the effect of shielding on cosmic rays in two different and complementary ways.
Note: The list of internal facilities is incomplete.
Columbus module operations:
The Columbus module can accommodate 4 ISPRs (International Standard Payload Racks) in a row and a total of 10 P/L (Payload ) racks. According to agreements, five P/L ISPRs can be utilized by ESA and 5 by NASA.
Figure 7: Internal layout of the Columbus racks (image credit: EADS Astrium)
All resources for operating Columbus are provided by the Station (ISS). Power is provided at a voltage of 120 V and distributed and converted by the Columbus Electrical Power Distribution system. Nitrogen is provided by the Station as well and distributed by the ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System) of Columbus to the 10 ISPRs and the Columbus TCS (Thermal Control System). 17)
Furthermore, respiratory air is delivered to the Columbus ECLSS and water for cooling to the Columbus TCS. Columbus also provides voice and video services to the crew via its COMMS (Communication System). Downlink and uplink of data and commands is provided by Station. All the commanding and monitoring of the Columbus systems and P/Ls is managed by the Columbus DMS (Data Management System).
The crew can operate the systems and potentially the P/Ls via a station common laptop configured with Columbus specific software - the Columbus PWS ( Portable Workstation). For certain vital tasks, the crew has to use a US PCS (US Portable Computer System) laptop.
The DMS is comprised of two different types of layers: the vital layer and the nominal layer. The crew can access the vital layer via the US PCS and the nominal layer via the Columbus PWS. The vital layer is mainly dealing with safety relevant issues and communicating with the US Orbital Segment (OS). The nominal layer, which is the interface for the crew for operating Columbus systems, can be subdivided into 3 more layers: the module layer, the system layer and the equipment layer. Each layer has a certain task, authority and autonomy (Figure 8).
The module layer of the nominal layer assures that all Columbus systems and P/Ls operate smoothly and do not interfere with each other. The system layer can be interpreted as smart H/W of the systems. This layer commands and controls system instrumentation directly by dedicated system S/W. Each system is responsible for command & control of its own H/W and processes. - The equipment layer comprises all the items which are actually implementing the operation of the systems. The items in this layer act on all the commands from the crew and the ground.
Figure 8: Schematic view of the DMS control layers (image credit: EADS Astrium)
The nominal crew I/F for the operation of Columbus is the Columbus PWS which is communicating with the nominal layer. The vital layer is only accessed in case of off-nominal situations, like an emergency.
The commanding of Columbus is the task of the Columbus CC (Col-CC) - for all nominal and off-nominal operation scenarios. All system operations will be carried out by on-line control. During normal operations they supervise on-board activities and uplink updates to the configuration data tables.
Figure 9: Columbus Command & Data Interfaces (image credit: EADS Astrium)
Columbus module - external payloads and experiments:
CEPF (Columbus External Payload Facility) provides four attachment sites for un-pressurized payloads (i.e. platforms to accommodate external payloads). The overall objectives of the external payloads are related to applications in the field of space science, Earth observation, technology demonstrations, and innovative sciences from space. CEPF features two identical L-shaped consoles attached to the starboard cone of the Columbus module in the zenith (top) and nadir (bottom) positions, where each console is supporting two platforms for external payloads or payload facilities. In total, four external payloads (payload facilities) can be operated at the same time (Figure 4).
The following external payloads are described in separate files on the eoPortal: EuTEF, SOLAR, ACES, ASIM and ColAIS; hence, the payloads are simply enumerated here for completeness (Ref. 16). 18) 19)
• EuTEF (European Technology Exposure Facility): launch Feb. 7 2008 on STS-122. EuTEF is comprised of the following sub-experiments:
- DEBIE-2 (DEBris In orbit Evaluator)
- DOSTEL (DOSimetric radiation TELescope)
- EuTEMP (EuTEF Thermometer)
- EVC (Earth Viewing Camera)
- EXPOSE (Exposure Experiment)
- FIPEX (Flux (Phi) Probe EXperiment - Time resolved Measurement of Atomic Oxygen)
- MEDET (Material Exposure and Degradation Experiment)
- PLEGPAY (Plasma Electrical Grounding Payload)
- TriboLab (Tribology Laboratory).
Note: After a successful mission of 1.5 years in open space, the EuTEF platform has been returned to Earth with the Shuttle 17A (STS-128) mission on Sept. 11, 2009.Throughout its 18 months in space, EuTEF has been under the continuous control of the Erasmus USOC (User Support and Operations Center) at ESA/ESTEC.
• SOLAR (Solar Monitoring Observatory): launch Feb. 7 2008 on STS-122.
SOLAR is an ESA experiment package consisting of three science instruments, namely SOVIM (Solar Variability and Irradiance Monitor), SOLSPEC (Solar Spectral Irradiance Measurements), and SolACES (Solar Auto-Calibrating EUV/UV Spectrophotometers). The overall objective is to measure the solar spectral irradiance with unprecedented accuracy.
• ColAIS (Columbus Automatic Identification System): Both receivers of ColAIS (NorAIS and LuxAIS) were delivered to the Columbus module of ISS by Japan's HTV-1 supply ferry in September 2009 (launch Sept. 10, 2009 from TNSC, Japan; docking of HTV-1 on Sept. 23, 2009). 20) 21)
Both AIS receivers are designed for wide-area vessel detection on the oceans in VHF frequency. The aim is to demonstrate spaceborne ship monitoring techniques which can then serve as the basis of operational services via satellite constellations.
• ASIM (Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor): A launch of ASIM is planned for 2013 on the HTV (H-II Transfer Vehicle), the automated unmanned transport system developed by JAXA as cargo transportation system for the International Space Station.
The objective of ASIM is to observe TLEs (Transient Luminous Events) that occur in the Earth's upper atmosphere accompanied by thunderstorms in the lower atmosphere.
• ACES (Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space): A launch of ACES is planned for the timeframe 2015-16 on the HTV (H-II Transfer Vehicle) of JAXA. 22)
ACES is an ESA ultra-stable clock experiment, a time and frequency mission to be flown on the Columbus module of the ISS (International Space Station), in support of fundamental physics tests. The mission objectives are both scientific and technological and is of great interest to two main scientific communities: 23)
- The Time and Frequency (T&F) community; which aims to use ACES as a tool for high precision Time and Frequency metrology
- The Fundamental Physics community; which will benefit from the use of ACES data for accurate tests of general relativity.
Columbus payload data handling and communications:
The Columbus module payloads are being operated by the Col-CC (Columbus Control Center), located at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. Under the call sign 'Munich', Col-CC is responsible for all Columbus systems and for European science activities on board the ISS. Col-CC control teams began their operational activities as a precursor to Columbus operations during ESA's Astrolab mission to the ISS in 2006. 24) 25)
Data communications: In Figure 10, it can be seen that the data undergoes many transformations on its trip from a payload on the Columbus module to the end user at a UHB (User Home Base). These transformations are necessary to fit the different data types, with their associated frequency, visibility and criticality requirements into the main ISS downlink and ground data distribution system.
A single measurement can show up in many different places and in many different forms. For example, a payload temperature sensor measurement that is considered safety critical and must be monitored in several places, could be included into the Columbus data system so that it can be monitored by the Columbus on-board computers. It could also be required to be in the on-board transfer of data from Columbus to the ISS, so that it can be monitored there on location. This one measurement could therefore be included in a payload CCSDS packet, a Columbus system CCSDS packet, an ISS CCSDS packet, MCC-H (Mission Control Center-Houston) processed data, Col-CC processed data, and USOC (User Science Operation Center) processed data. 26)
In general, science data in not transmitted via the TRDS S-band composite stream, which has a much lower bandwidth than the Ku-band stream, and is reserved for ISS and Columbus system data required to ensure the health and continued operation of the onboard systems. An exception to this is that payload command response packets (CCSDS format) are routed through the S-band link. This is primarily due to the fact that commands can only be linked through the S-band link. Since the S-band and Ku-band, although using the same relay satellite, have different communication coverage, it is necessary to rout the command responses (including payload command responses) through the same link to ensure that these differences do not cause ground centers to loose feedback on commands uplinked.
Figure 10: End-to-end data flow of the Columbus module (image credit: DLR)
Data handling at USOCs: ESA has adopted a decentralized scheme for the handling of European payloads on board the Station. USOCs are required to handle the majority of tasks related to the preparation for and the in-flight operation of the multi-user facilities. The USOCs are based in national centers distributed throughout Europe. These centers are responsible for the use and implementation of European payloads on board the ISS.
The Col-CC, integrated in GSOC and responsible for the operation of the Columbus space and ground segment, uses the IGS (Interconnection Ground Subnetwork). This network provides the basis for communication between Col-CC and its international partners (NASA, ESA, ATV-CC, etc.) and all USOCs across Europe. The IGS network was originally designed to use ATM technology, but due to cost reductions, many centers were connected via ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). Since 2009, the ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) and ISDN technology was replaced by the MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) network. The migration from ATM/ISDN to MPLS implied a lot of configuration and testing work within the IMS in parallel to real-time operations. 27) 28)
In the ATM/ISDN network, the IMS was configured to monitor the ATM/ISDN connections and to start/stop the ISDN lines towards the remote user centers (USOCs) to keep the costs under control. In the MPLS network the main focus is on monitoring the IGS network since start/stop of connections is not necessary anymore.
The ground segment has a star-like topology with a central node at Col-CC. Figure 11 gives an overview of the Columbus ground segment. In the design phase of the Col-CC, it was decided not to control and monitor every subsystem separately from its own console, but to integrate the management of the various subsystems under a single umbrella management subsystem - the IMS (Integrated Management System). This is a customized software designed to support the daily work of Ground Controllers (GCs) and System Controllers (SysCons) at Col-CC.
Figure 12: Simplified scheme of the overall distributed European ground segment for the support of ESA's ISS elements (image credit: ESA) 30)
Columbus module status:
• January 30, 2018: The year: 2007. The place: Cape Canaveral. The Columbus module, built in Italy and shipped from Germany, is undergoing tests at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 31)
- This unique interior view features some of the hardware that makes Columbus a world-class laboratory (Figure 13). Resembling airline galley storage units, the 'racks' are highly compact facilities for research in various scientific disciplines.
- Each rack is the size of a telephone booth and can host autonomous and independent laboratories, complete with power and cooling systems. Video and data links send results back to researchers on Earth.
- From left to right are the European Drawer Rack, a flexible experiment carrier; the European Physiology Modules for experiments focusing on the human body; Biolab for life sciences experiments; and the Fluid Science Lab for studying fluids in microgravity.
- The four are seen here in their launch configuration. The racks were later relocated inside Columbus once in orbit.
- Thanks to these and other facilities in Columbus, researchers have been able to conduct multidisciplinary research in microgravity over the past decade.
- From studying immune cells to understand how they function to developing technology that finds its way to Earth, Columbus and its suite of research equipment have hosted more than 225 experiments and generated countless scientific papers.
- On 7 February, ESA is celebrating 10 years of Europe's gateway to space research at our technical heart in the Netherlands. The event is a unique opportunity to re-live some exciting milestones, connect live to the Station and look into space exploration plans.
- The larger Columbus family of planners, builders, scientists, support teams and astronauts will gather to celebrate the past, present and future of Europe's major contributions to the Station.
Figure 13: The interior of the Columbus module during prelaunch tests (image credit: ESA, S. Corvaja)
• January 23, 2018: The focus of this image is the suspended European Columbus module being moved onto a work stand in a cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. 32)
- Of course, a cylindrical module of more than 10 t (without payloads) for housing laboratory equipment, storage units and three working astronauts is big, but the contrast between Columbus and the people in the image is startling. Even more so when we remember that Columbus is one of 16 similarly sized modules orbiting 400 km over our heads.
- Countless teams across Europe were involved in the planning, building and assembly of the parts that make up this orbital lab. Teams of people were involved in shipping Columbus across the Atlantic, where it was carefully received by even more partners in the greatest human endeavor.
- It would be another year and half before Columbus made its way to the International Space Station, in 2008. Ten remarkable years later, there is much to celebrate about this long-planned and hard-earned European contribution to the international space community.
- To mark the occasion, ESA is hosting a get-together of the larger Columbus family of planners, builders, scientists, support teams and astronauts at our technical heart in the Netherlands on 7 February. The event will be livestreamed to the public, with more details coming soon.
Figure 14: The Columbus research module is lowered onto a work stand at the launch site. This image of Columbus was taken in the summer of 2006, shortly after the module arrived at the launch site. Teams at NASA put Columbus through its final paces to ensure it was airtight and ready for flight (image credit: NASA)
• January 16, 2018: In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue ...In 2008 another Columbus sailed into space. Next month, Europe's Columbus laboratory achieves 10 years in orbit. Circling our planet at 28,800 km/h, this element of the International Space Station created space history as the first European module dedicated to long-term research in weightlessness. 33)
- Like the transatlantic voyages that Christopher Columbus made half a millennium ago, the Columbus module was meticulously planned, budgeted, scrapped and redesigned before getting the official blessing to build, ship and launch.
- The laboratory ascended to orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA on 7 February 2008. Nestling in the spaceplane's cargo bay, Columbus was accompanied by a seven-man crew.
- On 11 February 2008, the crew on the International Space Station captured the new arrival. At that moment, Columbus became Europe's first permanent human outpost in orbit and Europe became a full partner of the International Space Station.
Figure 15: The European Columbus laboratory is lifted out of the Shuttle payload bay, prior to attachment to the International Space Station (image credit: NASA)
Figure 16: Full station: The STS-122 and Expedition 16 crews on the International Space Station worked together to install the Columbus lab (image credit: NASA)
- Columbus houses as many disciplines as possible in a small volume, from astrobiology to solar science through metallurgy and psychology – more than 225 experiments have been carried out during this remarkable decade. Countless papers have been published drawing conclusions from experiments performed in Columbus.
- To mark the momentous occasion, the larger Columbus family of planners, builders, scientists, support teams and astronauts will gather to celebrate the lab at ESA's technical heart in the Netherlands on 7 February. More to come on this event soon ....
• January 16, 2018: The European Columbus module is packed up and loaded for transport to the US in this image from 2006 (Figure 17). Built in Turin, Italy, and Bremen, Germany, the completed module was shipped to NASA's facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida ahead of its February 2008 launch aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. 34)
- Columbus has been providing microgravity research facilities for the past decade. In honor of this milestone, this week's image celebrates Columbus' triumph over setbacks. Many events factored into its delayed launch: the bureaucratic challenge of planning and budgeting, construction delays and the tragic 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster meant Columbus was five years behind schedule by the time it climbed into the sky.
- So it was with joy and relief when Columbus inside its climate-controlled container was loaded into the Beluga aircraft, an Airbus A300 named after the whale it resembles.
- Among the many who attended its farewell ceremony was German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
- Once at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the fully integrated module underwent final tests before being loaded into the Shuttle payload bay.
- Since its launch in February 2008, the biggest European contribution to manned spaceflight has provided a multi-disciplinary, multi-user platform for research in biology, fluidics and physics, and technology demonstrations – and continues to do so today.
Figure 17: Columbus is loaded for its trip to the launch site (image credit: EADS, I. Wagner)
• January 9, 2018: Astronauts on the International Space Station have begun running an experiment that could shine new light on how metal alloys are formed. 35)
- How humanity has mastered metallurgy is synonymous with progress, with historians labelling periods such as the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
- Most metals used today are mixtures – alloys – of different metals, combining properties to make lighter and stronger materials. Like baking a cake, the result depends on more than just adding the right ingredients: casting is influenced by furnace temperatures and the cooling process. Some metals are even cast in hypergravity centrifuges in the quest for the perfect alloy.
- Alloys are everywhere now, from the smartphone in your pocket to aircraft. Making lighter, resistant, self-healing or even supple alloys obviously benefits industry and consumers alike.
Figure 18: Microscopic metal: This image shows how a metal alloy could look like as it solidifies, using a transparent organic mixture as a stand-in for metals. X-rays allow us to peer into the casting process but ideally researchers should look at the process under normal lighting. Unfortunately, metals are not transparent (image credit: E-USOC)
Figure 19: Space furnace: The transparent alloy furnace is running a first batch of mixtures succinonitrile, D-camphor and neopentyl glycol, contained inside a glass-wall cartridge at an agonizingly slow pace: they take upwards of two days to travel 1 mm, but the experiment runs on its own for several weeks. The goal is to shine new light on how metal alloys are formed (image credit: E-USOC)
Solving the problem of transparency:
- It is no wonder that we would love to peer into the inner workings of metal casting to see what is happening with our own eyes. Ideally, we should observe the process without gravity adding its extra layer of complexity. The problem, of course, is that metals are not transparent.
- ESA is running X-ray experiments on suborbital rockets but these are limited to 13 minutes of weightlessness at a time and X-rays do not reveal all.
- Instead, researchers looked at a stand-in for metals and found organic materials, carefully chosen to be transparent while solidifying like a metal.
- A first batch of mixtures arrived at the Space Station on 18 December 2017: succinonitrile, D-camphor and neopentyl glycol were delivered by a Dragon spacecraft inside a glass-wall cartridge together with a miniature toaster. This Bridgman furnace is similar to a conveyor-belt oven found in factories or fast-food restaurants. The cartridges pass through the heating element at an agonizingly slow pace: they take upwards of two days to travel 1 mm, but the experiment will run on its own for several weeks.
- An astronaut set up the Transparent Alloy furnace inside ESA's self-contained glovebox for safety and inserted the first cartridge.
- A hard disk is recording the microscopic view from two video cameras, while operators at the Spanish control center in Madrid can highlight different features using an array of colored lights.
- These experiments into fundamental phenomena are allowing scientists to understand and then control processes. Who knows what amazing metals might be created? The next metal age might just be something we can't imagine right now.
Figure 20: While the mixtures go through the furnace, a hard disk records the microscopic view from two video cameras, while operators at the Spanish control center in Madrid can highlight different features using an array of colored lights (image credit: E-USOC)
• January 9, 2018: Inside the cylindrical modules of the International Space Station is the standard stuff of technology. Wires, cables and pumps form the framework of the one-of-a-kind European Columbus laboratory, seen here in its early days of assembly. 36)
- The cornerstone of Europe's contribution to the Space Station, Columbus is a pressurized laboratory that allows astronauts to work in a comfortable and safe environment.
- This year marks the 10th anniversary of Columbus in orbit. In celebration of its remarkable decade, we will revisit the technological and scientific milestones of the lab in feature images, beginning with this one taken during its construction in 2001 (Figure 21).
- Like its sister nodes Tranquility and Harmony of NASA, Columbus' assembly began in Turin, Italy. The structure, thermal control and life-support equipment, plumbing and external protection were completed by September 2001.
- Like its sister nodes Tranquility and Harmony, Columbus' assembly began in Turin, Italy. The structure, thermal control and life-support equipment, plumbing and external protection were completed by September 2001.
- Although Columbus is the Station's smallest laboratory module, it provides the same payload volume, power, data retrieval, vacuum and venting services as the other modules, an achievement made possible thanks to careful planning.
- The lab has been supporting sophisticated research in life and physical sciences, space science, Earth observation and technology demonstrations in weightlessness for the past decade.
Figure 21: Human spaceflight and exploration image of the week: Europe's Columbus laboratory before installing the research facilities (image credit: ESA)
• Solar Research 2016: Solar activity can have significant effects not only on Earth but also on the satellites in orbit around it, which are now vital for communications and navigation on Earth. Solar EUV (Extreme UV) radiation, for instance, which is absorbed into the upper atmosphere, strongly influences the propagation of electromagnetic signals such as those emitted from navigation satellites. — ESA's Solar facility (Figure 22) was installed on the Columbus External Payload Facility in February 2008. It includes two working instruments (SolACES and SOLSPEC) that allow for highly accurate measurements of the absolute values of solar irradiance in a very large wavelength bandwidth, ranging from soft X-rays (17 nm) through the UV/VIS band to the far infrared (100 µm). The Solar package is thus contributing to the understanding of solar and stellar physics, and to Earth system sciences such as atmospheric chemistry and climatology. Data from the Solar facility have already helped to validate improved models of the upper atmosphere. 37)
Figure 22: The Solar facility (center) on the Columbus module of the ISS (image credit: NASA)
The originally foreseen lifespan of Solar was 18 months to 2 years, although this has now been far exceeded with a second mission extension granted until the end of 2016. The facility will provide a great deal of data during the approximately 11-year solar cycle, during which time the Sun goes through varying degrees of increased/diminished solar activity.
As of January 2016 the Solar facility had undertaken almost 100 data acquisition periods, called Sun visibility windows, since its installation. These normally last around 10–12 days due to ISS orbital parameters and restrictions. Since 2008 the facility has been able to take measurements during some very interesting periods of solar activity:
- during a large solar storm in January 2012
- during a solar eclipse in March 2015, providing data that were useful for instrument calibration purposes
- close to the transit of Venus across the Sun in June 2012, taking simultaneous measurements with ESA's Venus Express, enabling in-orbit calibration of a Venus Express UV spectrometer
- during four extended science acquisition periods (involving rotating the ISS slightly) in order to take measurements during a whole Sun rotation cycle, which lasts around 26 days at the solar equator and up to 36 days at the solar poles. This produced excellent scientific results.
Looking at the results from the Solar facility (Nikutowski et al., 2011) 38), the length of the period of the solar EUV minimum between solar cycles 23 and 24 continued over an unexpectedly long period (roughly two years instead of one), with the facility's SolACES (Solar AutoCalibrating Extreme UV Spectrometer) instrument showing a distinct minimum in August/November 2009. At the beginning of solar cycle 24 measurements were showing abnormally low characteristics of the EUV spectral irradiance. The maximum of the current solar cycle was also previously predicted to be in late 2013. However, from SolACES measurements it was thought that the maximum may have occurred in late 2011, as solar activity declined and stagnated for a long period, before undergoing a strong increase again, culminating in a second peak of activity in early 2014.
The Solar facility will continue to serve the purpose of updating the measurements of the spectrum of solar radiation, which will provide important contributions for scientists to elaborate new and improved means to understand and deal with many aspects of Earth's climate, the atmosphere, satellite telecommunications, human health, etc., that are influenced by solar radiation. By providing details of the variability of solar EUV radiation, Solar will contribute to improving the accuracy of navigation data, as well as forecasts of the orbits of satellites and space debris.
Continued monitoring of the current solar cycle 24 is of significant scientific interest, especially in view of the abnormal behavior already measured. It would also be the first time a full set of solar spectral irradiance data would be provided and would answer open questions with respect to different solar cycle periods especially in the highly variable EUV spectral range (Ref. 37).
• In January 2016, ESA is reporting the development of a new prototype compact AIS antenna. "Based on our testing, this new prototype designs offers a four-fold increase in ship detection performance," explains ESA antenna specialist Nelson Fonseca, overseeing the project. 39)
- The AIS detection system (NorAIS) on Columbus employs a low-gain 'whip' antenna, receiving signals within a very broad beam, with corresponding potential for signal overlap and interference.
- This antenna design combines higher-gain with a more reduced footprint, allowing more of a focus on regions of highest interest, and can also discriminate between polarizations, increasing the likelihood of detection for any individual AIS signal within the antenna field of view. In addition, clever engineering has shrunk the overall antenna size to a size where up to five could be hosted on a minisatellite of 1 m3 in volume.
- "Despite its name, VHF (Very High Frequency)is quite a low wavelength in space terms, implying a bulky antenna of about 1 m across and 0.5 m thick to operate ideally at that frequency," Nelson adds. "But the patterned square-shaped structure on the underlying face of our antenna changes the signal behavior, enabling us to shrink the design to 50 cm width and 3 cm thickness – making it suitable for hosting on a smaller platform."
- The antenna was developed through ESA's ARTES (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems) advanced technology program with Italian companies CGS SpA (Compagnia Generale per lo Spazio), Milan, Italy, as prime contractor and MVG (Microwave Vision Group) as subcontractor in charge of the electrical design.
Figure 23: Photo of the new prototype compact AIS antenna (image credit: ESA–G. Porter, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• December 2015: The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) operated the NorAIS Receiver on-board the Columbus module of the ISS from June 2010 to February 2015. In addition to receiving AIS messages and demonstrating space-based AIS as a security, safety and surveillance capability for European authorities, the NORAIS Receiver was designed to collect auxiliary data about the AIS signals and signal environment in space. The intention was to collect information that would contribute to the development of more advanced decoding algorithms, and investigate in-situ the challenges that space-based AIS receivers face. 40)
• May 28, 2014: The NorAIS (Norwegian Automatic Identification System) receiver on the Columbus module of ESA is still working well in its 5th year of operations. The SDR (Software Defined Radio) has been upgraded 4 times resulting in substantial improvements to its performance in challenging areas with thousands of ships within the FOV (Field of View), i.e. the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea and Baltic Sea. 41)
- Besides being used for development purposes, NorAIS has been used for demonstrations and pilot projects for ESA and the EU, as well as in support of counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.
- NORAIS operations are expected to continue at least until the end of 2015, most probably even longer. The LuxAIS receiver has not been re-sent to orbit, so NorAIS is operated on a continuous basis.
- The NorAIS data from the ISS is received by the Col-CC (Columbus Control Center), located at DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany and then routed to the N-USOC in Trondheim, Norway.
• May 2014: Astronauts on the ISS can now talk with people on Earth with video using simple transmitters. 'Ham TV' has been set up in ESA's Columbus laboratory and already used for talking with ground control. The new Ham TV adds a visual dimension, allowing an audience on the ground to see and hear the astronauts. 42) 43)
- The hardware, developed by Kayser Italia, was sent to the space station on Japan's space freighter in August 2013 and connected to an existing S-band antenna on Columbus.
- NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins had the honor of being the first to commission the unit and broadcast over Ham TV. He had a video chat with three ground stations in Italy: Livorno, Casale Monferrato and Matera. The crew finished commissioning the set-up on April 12, 2014 for general use. Just like standard television, the video signal is one way. The astronauts cannot see their audience but they will still be able to hear them over the traditional amateur radio on the space station.
- ESA has provided five ground antennas and equipment to the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station organization to receive video from the station. These stations can be transported easily and positioned to follow the laboratory as it flies overhead. Linked together in this way, the stations can supply up to 20 minutes of contact at a time.
Figure 24: Photo of the Ham TV equipment [image credit: AMSAT, ARISS (Amateur Radio on the ISS)] 44)
• May 2, 2014: Solar facility on Columbus (SOLSPEC and SolACES): The SOLAR payload facility has been studying the Sun's irradiation with unprecedented accuracy across most of its spectral range since 2008. This has so far produced excellent scientific data during a series of Sun observation cycles. An extension to the payload's time in orbit could see its research activities extend up to early 2017 to monitor the whole solar cycle with unprecedented accuracy. 45)
• Feb. 12, 2013: The European Columbus laboratory module was attached to the International Space Station five years ago, it has offered researchers worldwide the opportunity to conduct science beyond the effects of gravity. 46)
- A total of 110 ESA-led experiments involving some 500 scientists have been conducted since 2008, spanning fluid physics, material sciences, radiation physics, the Sun, the human body, biology and astrobiology.
- Col-CC (Columbus Control Center), located at the DLR (German Aerospace Center) facility in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, works closely with the other ISS control centers including Houston and Moscow. Col-CC is responsible for all Columbus systems and for European science activities on board the ISS. 47)
• Fall 2011: With the establishment of Columbus in orbit, the approaching launch of ATV-3 and a fully established six-member ISS crew in orbit, Europe is now fully immersed in routine scientific operations and utilization of the International Space Station. Following the years of preparation the investments made are now starting to bear more fruit. Columbus is outfitted with a full quota of research facilities and the availability of the Material Science Laboratory and other payloads in ISS partner laboratories has expanded research possibilities on the ISS further. 48) 49)
- After 3 ½ years of Columbus operations the number of experiments, and in particular their scope, duration and complexity, has significantly increased. During its initial period of operation, the Columbus Laboratory proved to be a very robust element of in-orbit infrastructure and is now proving itself as a workhorse of European research in LEO (Low Earth Orbit).
- Preparations for future experiments are ongoing and several new payloads or experimental inserts for the existing Columbus research facilities are nearing their completion and launch. In addition, utilization strategies and future scientific and technological priorities have been identified and are addressed in various ongoing studies that will lead to new instrumentation and payloads in order to satisfy the high European research demand.
- Very fruitful research collaborations with other ISS Partners have already been successfully implemented and further promising perspectives identified in order to maximize the ISS yield by optimum use and share of all available on-orbit assets and crew resources. An exciting era for ESA and the European scientific and industrial user community is continuing, and bodes well for promising scientific future and challenging new objectives in space exploration.
• In the fall of 2010, 2 ½ years after operations started in the Columbus module, the FCT (Flight Control Team) is busy to prepare and execute operations in the European module, taking into account the larger workforce onboard ISS, since the permanent 6 person crew has been established in May 2009. 50)
In the last 12 months a continuous flow of known and new maintenance activities have been performed to ensure that all capabilities of the module are permanently available and full support for payload operations can be given.
• On 1 June 2010, the COLAIS (Columbus Automatic Identification System) experiment with the NorAIS receiver was switched on. More than 90,000 Class A AIS messages were gathered by between 1900 GMT on 2 June and 0900 GMT on 3 June. 51)
Figure 25: Data received from ships after one day of the ColAIS experiment (image credit: ESA)
• Operations coordination with JAXA for Matroshka: A very new chapter in ISS operation was the introduction of a closer interface between Col-CC and the Space Station Integration and Promotion Center (SSIPC) in Tsukuba (Japan). This new interface was introduced by moving Matroshka to the Kibo module. Matroshka is a torso equipped with dosimeter to measure the radiation inside a structure comparable to a human body. The experiment will reside inside JEM for several months until the dosimeter will be brought back to Earth for analysis in 2011.
• During 2009, the DMS (Data Management System) failures represented one of the most challenging events in Columbus module operations.
- Already in the beginning of 2009 a first DMS failure had occurred which could be solved by a partial shutdown and reactivation of the Columbus onboard computer system.
- Throughout the year 2009 and also before and after the Cycle 12 transition the DMS worked without problems.
- Nevertheless on 18 February 2010 a failure occur-red in the nominal DMS leading to partial loss of Columbus onboard functions while the Space Shuttle was docked to the Station.
• Since the summer of 2008 Col-CC supports B-USOC (Brussels-User Operation and Support Center) by taking over the monitoring of the SOLAR external payload if it is in the so-called "idle" mode. This releases B-USOC from a 24/7 shift scheme during that phase that the small team at B-USOC can concentrate on the monitoring and commanding of the external payload in the active phases.
• The Columbus module was permanently attached to the ISS in February 2008 — and is expected to be utilized at least up to 2020, with a final confirmation expected from the International Partners by the end of 2010 in the context of deciding upon the overall continuation of the ISS.
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).