DLR: Research in orbit -- Aims and prospects for using Columbus

Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt
Cologne, Germany


Andreas Schutz
Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) - German Aerospace Center
Corporate Communications
Tel.: +49 30 67055-130
Fax: +49 30 67055-120

Dr. Peter Preu
German Aerospace Center
Space Agency, Microgravtiy Research
Tel.: +49 228 447-319
Fax: +49 228 447-735

6 February 2008

Research in orbit – Aims and prospects for using Columbus

The Columbus space laboratory is Europe’s main contribution to the
International Space Station (ISS). It is designed for long-term,
multi-discipline research in space. Germany is one of the most important
nations in terms of scientific research on the ISS. This applies
particularly to bio and material sciences. About 40% of the projects
selected in European competition originate from German research institutes.

It is 6.9 metres long with a diameter of 4.5 metres. Research will be
carried out on Columbus, between Earth and space in the fields of material
and life sciences. New technologies will be developed. Its designers also
hope that it will one day be used for industrial and commercial purposes.
This lab will be the main working area for European astronauts. There are
platforms on the outer wall of the laboratory to attach experiments that
will be exposed to outer space. The operation of the laboratory will be
controlled by the European Columbus Control Centre within DLR’s German Space
Operations’ Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich.

German scientists have been carrying out research on the ISS for six years

German scientists started using the ISS as early as 2001 with projects on
plasma crystal research and measuring radiation in outer space. Since then
about 25 more experiments or series of experiments have been started and
have already been partially completed. This was made possible by successful
international cooperative ventures with the space station partners, USA,
Russia and Canada. Up to now research has been carried out in the fields of
plasma physics, space medicine and biotechnology.

Plasma crystal research

The very first scientific experiment that was carried out on the ISS
commenced in March 2001. This was a series of experiments that is still
continuing today to research plasma crystals by the Max Planck Institute for
Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching (Co-ordinator: G. Morfill). This
involves micro-particles arranged so that they are floating in a plasma at
room temperature. The lattice-shaped arrangement can be used as an
experimental model system for the atomic structure of a solid. Thus
scientists can examine in detail the melting of a solid using individual
particle movements in terms of time and space. Under certain conditions they
are also able to analyse flowing liquids and gases at elemental micro
particle level.

Space medicine

In the field of space medicine, German scientists from the Charite Hospital
in Berlin (co-ordinator: A. Clarke) have already obtained important results
on the way the balance system works, especially the interplay between the
processes in the inner ear and the sight process to orientate yourself in
space and in heart circulation regulation. Another experiment could prove
that the accuracy of fine motor skills is affected when weightless which can
be balanced by increased effort of thought. Doctors have also begun to work
out the reasons for astronauts’ immune systems to be affected in space. From
this they are expecting to find out more general aspects of how the human
immune system works.


Biotechnology is focussing on the crystallisation of proteins in
weightlessness. The basis for analysing crystal structures is the most
perfect possible crystallisation of the substances to be investigated which
is achieved perfectly under weightless conditions in space. Precise
knowledge of the structure is a pre-requisite for understanding their
properties and functions in order to optimise, for example, the
pharmaceutical applications of a specific protein. Information on the
structure of different molecules could actually be improved as a result of
space experiments. This happened, for example, with the mistel lectin used
in immune stimulation and the fight against cancer. In some cases the
astronaut scientists actually achieved crystallisation for the first time
with some surface bacteria proteins.

Radiation in outer space

In future researchers want to record the intensity and composition of
radiation in outer space and its effect on organisms. This is another focal
point of German ISS research. Using measurements taken inside and outside
the space station, including those taken with Matroshka, developed by DLR in
Cologne for ESA, they were able to gain significant information on the
effect of exposure to radiation on astronauts. (Matroshka is a dummy, a
mock-human of natural bone, simulated organs and synthetic skin).

2006 - Astrolab mission with astronaut Thomas Reiter

In the second half of 2006, the German, Thomas Reiter, was the first
European astronaut to work on a long-term mission on board the ISS. During
the six month Astrolab mission German researchers were the lead researchers
in eight of the 30 scientific experiments and German institutes were
involved with others. These experiments involved investigating the balance
and immune systems in weightlessness, recording radiation in outer space and
its biological effects and plasma physics. The mission was the start of
European long-term research on the ISS.

A new era began for German scientists with Columbus. With its
state-of-the-art facilities for research into biology, medicine and fluid
physics and the equipment for astrobiology fitted onto the outside, Columbus
will be available as the “laboratory in outer space” for the next few years
of cutting-edge research under weightlessness.

Research goals for the next few years

In the next few years a large number of projects have already been
identified for research in outer space. About 100 German projects have been
accepted against international competition according to the best science
principle and are now waiting to be implemented. As part of the primary aims
of DLR’s “Research under space conditions” programme, these projects define
the specific research goals for the next few years.

The Columbus space laboratory is a joint European project led by the
European Space Agency (ESA). Germany was and is heavily involved in the
construction, operation and use of Columbus. The Columbus Control Centre is
located in the German Space Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich.

You will find the research goals in the fields of biology and physics and an
article on the industrial use of the ISS in the right hand column of this
page in the form of .pdf documents.

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