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Columbus celebrates fifth anniversary in space

The Columbus laboratory recently completed its fifth successful year in space. Built by Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen, the research module was launched into orbit on the Atlantis space shuttle on 7 February 2008 and docked with the International Space Station three days later. Airbus Defence and Space developed and built Columbus on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA).

Columbus is the cornerstone of Europe’s scientific endeavours in space. On board the laboratory, up to three astronauts can perform experiments simultaneously in ways that would be impossible in the gravity of Earth. Over the last five years, some 200 experiments have been successfully completed, spanning a broad range of basic research areas with a particular focus on material sciences, chemistry, physics, medicine, human physiology, space science and geosciences.

Depending on an experiment’s complexity, it can take anything from two to five years to move from the experimental concept all the way through to an actual flight to the ISS – or even longer in the case of experiments such as the Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space (ACES).

“Changing the space station’s orbit was a very special situation that required a huge amount of coordination,” said Helmut Luttmann, who is responsible for space station operation and utilisation at Airbus Defence and Space. “We had to get agreement from all five ISS partners – the USA, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada – before going ahead with the process. And we also had to coordinate it with all the other control centres.” The SOLAR package was originally designed to operate in space for just 18 months, but its success has led to the mission being extended until 2016. It is hoped that the accumulated results will throw light on the extent to which the Sun’s radiation affects the Earth’s climate.

Under the Industrial Operator Team (IOT) contract, Airbus Defence and Space has been commissioned by ESA to operate and utilise the European components of the ISS until 2020. That means that the Columbus laboratory will continue to form part of the International Space Station for at least seven more years.

“I’m enormously proud of what we’ve all achieved as a team over the last five years,” says Helmut. “The Columbus module performed without a hitch right from the start, and that shows just how well everyone has pulled together in a team comprising a consortium of more than 40 companies plus our customer, ESA.”