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Science getting an orbital boost


An artist's conception shows a cutaway of the Columbus orbital lab with astronauts

working within. The lab is due to be delivered aboard the shuttle Atlantis.

The international space station was meant to be the premier facility for research opening the way to the moon, Mars and beyond, plus research aimed at making life back on Earth better. So far, the reality has fallen short of the dream - but scientists hope the dream will come a lot closer with the launch of the European Space Agency's Columbus orbital laboratory aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

Someday, the research due to be done on Columbus could lead to greenhouse gardens on Mars (as well as more efficient crops on Earth) ... new materials for building habitats in space (as well as super-lightweight, super-strong structures on our home planet) ... and new propulsion methods for interstellar travel (as well as new energy sources for earthly use).

The $2 billion Columbus module will double the amount of lab space on the orbital outpost. Its arrival at the station is the culmination of two decades of planning - but the way ESA's Martin Zell sees it, this is just the beginning of an upsurge for science on the space station.

Atlantis' mission puts Europe squarely in the spotlight - not only because of Columbus, but also because of the European presence on the shuttle's crew. "We are quite happy that, for the Columbus launch, two ESA astronauts will be on board," Zell told me.

The Europeans, like the rest of Atlantis' astronauts, are anxious to get on with the work of the mission. German astronaut Hans Schlegel will help hook up the lab during a series of spacewalks, while French astronaut Leopold Eyharts will stay behind on the space station and get Columbus' first experiments going.

Building upon Destiny

Some European scientific experiments have already gotten a head start - courtesy of the U.S.-built Destiny laboratory, which was attached to the station almost seven years ago and has been the prime place for doing science in orbit.

Columbus' metal can isn't quite as big as Destiny: Columbus weighs 27,000 pounds (12,250 kilograms) and measures 21 feet (6.5 meters) long and 14 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter -compared with Destiny's dimensions of 32,000 pounds, 28 feet in length and 14 feet in diameter (14,400 kilograms, 8.5 by 4.5 meters).

But Destiny has just 13 standard slots for experimental racks, while Columbus has 16 (five of which are already filled). What's more, spacewalkers will be hooking up a solar observatory as well as an experimental package that includes an Earth-watching camera on the lab's exterior.

Columbus' first experiments will look at how mustard seeds grow in zero-G,and how space radiation affects humans, plants and tiny living things,  down to the cellular level. One experiment will even test the idea that seeds could have survived the trip through the vacuum of space to spark life on Earth (or other planets).

Questions about how organisms can survive in space, where radiation and reduced gravity are big issues, will be key to figuring out to settle other worlds, grow crops and give birth to new generations beyond Earth.

Practical science

In the shorter term, there are more practical issues that can be studied in the Columbus lab, then adapted for earthly technologies. To cite just one example, the solar observatory will analyze how space weather affects the electromagnetic signals issued by navigation satellites - which could lead to more accurate, more reliable GPS measurements. 

Columbus' Fluid Science Laboratory will study weightless liquids not only to learn more about how liquid metal flows at Earth's core, but also to figure out how to clean up oil spills more completely and make optical lenses more efficiently.

Future research in fluid physics could develop new types of metal foams, which could be used as low-density, high-strength building materials on Earth as well as in space. "You cannot look into metal foams with normal diagnostic techniques," Zell said. It takes a space station.

Years ago, scientists and engineers talked about turning the space station into a factory for new materials and medications. Since then, reality has set in - and now even the station's most avid backers acknowledge that the business case for manufacturing in space doesn't add up.

"It most likely makes no sense, just because of the cost of production," Zell said, "but basically you learn the essentials of certain physical processes and bring them back to Earth, to improve Earth production processes."

Limited capability ... for now

This mission is just the start, Zell said. Right now, the capability to do science is limited, in part because not all the experiments are ready to send up to Columbus. What's more, the solar-array problem that first turned up earlier this year could limit the amount of power available for science operations. But the most serious constraint is the fact that the station's three crew members have so many maintenance duties that there's little time for research.


French astronaut Leopold Eyharts and NASA crewmate

Leland Melvin get a close look at the Columbus lab

during a pre-launch inspection.

"The crew time is a challenge, absolutely," Zell said. That's why most of the experiments in the early going are conducted during shuttle visits, or are run as before-and-after medical tests.

Some experiments can basically be put on autopilot - with controllers at the ESA's Columbus Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, minding the store.

"The Fluid Science Laboratory is not crew-intensive because you plug in the experiment, you switch on the facility, and everything is operated from the ground," Zell said.

Every flight from here on out should further boost the station's science capability - climaxing in 2009, when the standard space station crew is due to double from three to six.

"A lot of the limitations will then become obsolete, and we can do much more, especially if we join forces with NASA and the Russians," said Zell, head of the research operations department of ESA's human spaceflight program.

Gee-whiz in zero-G

Even as Japan and Russia add their own labs to the space station complex, Europe's scientific presence will be growing as well. There'll be an upgraded plasma research facility, building on successful experiments already conducted in the Destiny lab. Plasma physics plays a role in the search for new methods of space propulsion, and in the quest for controlled fusion power as well.

Zell is also making plans for a materials-science lab that would open the way for zero-G research on advanced alloys and semiconductors. One of the gee-whiz items would be an electromagnetic levitator that can confine substances in microgravity without a container.

"The material is basically suspended without any wall contact," Zell said.

To hear Zell talk, the future is sounding more and more like those initial visions for science in space - and Columbus could mark a major step along the way. But will logistical and financial realities pop up yet again to turn the space station program's dream into a budget-busting nightmare? Weigh in with your comments on that topic below.

Update for 1 p.m. ET Feb. 9, 2008: This post was written back when Atlantis was expected to launch in December. A fuel-tank glitch forced a two-month delay in liftoff, and I've made some minor edits to remove the outdated references in the original version.