Laboratory in space: interview with Bernardo Patti
Submitted by rau on 29 April 2008
What is Columbus?
Columbus is the name of a research laboratory that we will send into space to dock with the International Space Station [ISS]w1. It is an add-on module to the station, that contains all the facilities to carry out experiments in space. It will be on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which will be launched in early 2008 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
What does such a space laboratory look like?
Columbus has a cylindrical shape. It is around 7 metres long and 4.5 metres in diameter. Equipment inside is packed very efficiently.
We had to work very hard to come up with the best design that would make the most efficient use of the 75 m3 volume. It can now fit three crew members and contains all the essential research equipment. The individual research facilities accommodate very high-tech racks with drawers of equipment and workspace that can be pulled out.
In the European Physiology Module contained in Columbus, the effect of long-duration spaceflights on the human body and health will be tested. We also hope to gain some insights into terrestrial problems such as the processes of ageing, balance disorders, bone osteoporosis and muscle dystrophy.
In the Material Science Laboratory, experiments will be run to explore different materials to improve the study of their properties. We will melt and solidify metals and expose them to different atmospheres and conditions.
Isn't it a lot of effort to send terrestrial samples into space to study them?
It definitely is a lot of effort, but it is worth it. All of the questions we are investigating could never be addressed in laboratories on Earth, because gravity is such a pervasive force on our planet. I know it sounds paradoxical that it is easier to understand some terrestrial phenomena in space, far away from their natural context, but gravity makes some experiments simply impossible and overrides many small effects that can be studied in orbit.
What are the challenges of a mission like Columbus?
The foremost challenge was constructing a laboratory that on Earth would weigh at least 50 tonnes with a diameter of just over four metres while keeping it light enough to be sent into space. Columbus weighs around 12 tonnes and that is about the maximum weight the Atlantis shuttle can carry.
What excites you personally about the project?
As an engineer, I was particularly attracted by the design and engineering challenges involved. But space and weightlessness also carry an inherent fascination: engineering and travelling into space share the fact that they overcome traditional barriers of technology and mankind. It is incredibly exciting and a huge step for space exploration.
Everyday I talk to people from many different countries, sometimes speaking several languages a day. It is rewarding for us to see so many nations putting so much effort into the realisation of such an ambitious project and to see healthy competition developing between nations.
Curiosity and science go beyond national borders and historic differences. They are strong, uniting forces that bridge geographical and cultural gaps.
Is there any way that teachers and school kids can benefit from Columbus?
As we go to press: the Columbus module has joined the ISS
ESA will continue to contribute to ISS operations by launching unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs), designed to deliver scientific experiments, crew support equipment (such as food and clothing), fluids and propellant. The first ATV, Jules Verne, will be launched by an Ariane 5 rocket on 8 March.w2
Columbus was designed to support some 500 experiments per year for ten years, in cell and plant biology, astrobiology, human physiology, fluid and material sciences, fundamental physics, astronomy, remote sensing and technology. For the European science community and industrial R&D, a new era of research has just begun.
w1 – An article about the International Space Station will be available in a future issue of Science in School. Keep visiting www.scienceinschool.org
w2 - For more information about the Automated Transfer Vehicles, see the following article in this issue of Science in School:
ESA have produced many educational materials relating to the International Space Station (ISS):
A printed ISS education kit for both primary- and secondary-school teachers is available in all 12 ESA languages. The kits are based on all the fascinating activities involved in building, working and living on board the ISS, and provide background information and exercises for classroom teaching. They are available to all school teachers in ESA member states and can be ordered free online: www.esa.int/spaceflight/education
An interactive version of the ISS education kit is available here: www.esa.int/spaceflight/education
A series of ISS DVD lessons cover topics relating to European school curricula. One about the Automated Tranfer vehicle is due to be released in summer 2008. The DVDs can be ordered free by teachers: www.esa.int/spaceflight/education
ESA is also developing a series of online lessons for primary- and secondary-school students and their teachers. See: www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Lessons_online
Further details and education materials can be found on the:
and the European Space Agency Human Spaceflight Education website: www.esa.int/esaHS/education.html
This article could start wonderful discussions about gravity, microgravity or free-fall conditions, how gravity on Earth affects chemical and physical behaviour of substances and bodies in Earth-based experiments, and how we can reproduce an almost gravity-free environment orbiting the Earth. The so-called Einstein equivalence principle immediately comes to mind, prompting one to wonder how free-fall can be equivalent to the absence of gravitational pull. Human body behaviour in space and after re-entering a terrestrial environment can involve life science and chemistry in an amazing interdisciplinary space party.