Published: 08.02.08
Space Biology

Europe’s space laboratory

Work on the European Columbus Space Laboratory has been ongoing since 2000. It was launched into space successfully yesterday with BIOLAB, the biological experiments laboratory, on board. ETH Zurich’s BIOTESC Space Centre is among those responsible for it.

Thomas Langholz
The Columbus Space Laboratory. Source: ESA
The Columbus Space Laboratory. Source: ESA (large view)

The space biologists of ETH Zurich celebrated in the Technopark at 20:45 on Thursday. The Columbus Space Laboratory on board the Atlantis Space Shuttle was successfully launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Following several launch postponements, the Space Shuttle with its valuable cargo made a problem-free takeoff into space yesterday evening. The Biotechnology Space Support Center (BIOTESC), which is operated by the Space Biology Group, was founded in 2000. It supports the Columbus experiments together with eight other centres in Europe. The barrel-shaped laboratory, which will dock onto the International Space Station in the next few days, weighs 13 tons and is 4.5 metres in diameter and 7 metres long. Columbus carries various experimental installations on board.

Complex experiments

One of these is BIOLAB, for which BIOTESC is responsible together with the German centre. Biological experiments are carried out in space in this refrigerator-sized equipment cabinet. Sonia Vadrucci, Head of Biotesc, says “We can now use the BIOLAB to perform even complex experiments.” The experimental station is equipped with an incubator, automatic pipettes, a microscope, centrifuge, refrigerator and various measuring instruments. The astronauts can mix liquids by hand or start experiments manually. Vadrucci says “Safety is the most important rule. We must ensure that no liquids escape. The astronauts work with gloves in a sealed chamber in what is known as a glove-box.”

Data live from space

The BIOLAB now enables experiments to be monitored and controlled from the ground. By using a life support system, the researchers can now allow experiments to proceed for months without involving the astronauts. Analyses can also be carried out in real time from the ground. In contrast to previous experiments, the researchers already receive data from space during the experiments. Vadrucci stresses: “Previously we always had to wait until the astronauts reported or the samples had returned to Earth again. Now we can observe the progress of the experiments in space.” From January, BIOTESC staff will also be able to follow experiments live via video for one hour per day. This involves the data travelling a long distance: from the ISS to NASA in Florida, then via data cable to the Columbus Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen and from there to the space biologists at ETH Zurich.
Experiments on micro-organisms, tissue cultures, plants and small invertebrates will be carried out in various tests. This involves studying the effect of weightlessness on the various levels of life from a cell to an insect.

Space-walks

The original plan was for the launch to take place three years ago. After the Columbia catastrophe in which the US Space Shuttle broke up on re-entry, manned space flight in the USA came to a halt for two years. The developers used this time to bring the space laboratory up to the latest state of the art.
Atlantis will take about two days to reach the ISS. The astronauts need a further two days to dock Columbus onto the ISS. This also requires a few space-walks. Next Columbus will be commissioned. The first experiments will take place about two weeks later. The experiments will be expanded continuously in the next few years. Subsequent Shuttles that dock onto the ISS will again carry on board experiments developed and designed by the space biologists of ETH Zurich.

· ETH Life article about ETH Zurich Space Biology’s KUBIK