EANA: Experiments on the ISS

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Experiments on the ISS

Original article On Station September 2003

Pre-Columbus Experiments

ESA has already performed a significant number of experiments through Europe's three Soyuz flights so far (Claudie Haigneré, November 2001; Roberto Vittori, April 2002; Frank De Winne, October 2002). Almost 50 experiments covered medical research, materials sciences, biotechnology, Earth observation and technology. Several educational experiments were carried out in cooperation with schools in Europe, explaining the basic facts of space, weightlessness and the fun of science in general. Two more European Soyuz flights are imminent, carrying 30 experiments: Pedro Duque (October 2003) and André Kuipers (April 2004). These Soyuz missions are very restrictive in terms of up/download, crew time and preparation time, particularly if dedicated equipment has to be developed. In general, the time between mission approval and launch date is (sometimes significantly) less than a year. Nevertheless, experience shows that it is still possible to define and carry out a mature scientific programme. It is expected that building up the "furniture" of the ISS with more experimental facilities will increase the efficiency of this type of mission. A good example is the ESA-developed Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), which has provided the basic services and environment for seven physical science facilities that otherwise would have been too cumbersome to be developed or launched as part of a Soyuz mission. In the aftermath of the Columbia accident, studies are under way to exploit the knowledge gained during Europe's Soyuz missions to define experiments requiring virtually no upload at all.

In addition to the Soyuz flights, NASA carries out European human physiology experiments on the ISS as part of agreements in the International Life Sciences Strategic Working Group (ISLSWG). Two have been completed, and ten more are planned.

Fig. 1 A "scorpionaut" will fly on Columbus to aid research into biological clocks.


First Columbus Experiments

Columbus will be launched carrying its major scientific facilities. This unique feature ensures that research can begin immediately after the commissioning phase. As a result, the first batch of experiments are now being prepared, the intention being that the experiment-specific inserts and consumables be launched on the UF-3 utilisation flight a few months after Columbus arrives. The second batch of experiments is already defined, to fly about a year after the first. The facilities being carried by Columbus are: Biolab, Fluid Science Lab (FSL), European Physiology Modules (EPM) and European Drawer Rack (EDR). The Materials Science Lab (MSL) will be delivered to the US Lab Destiny a few months later. The European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) will also have been in use for a few months by then.

All of the experiments currently in preparation are described briefly below and in the tables.


Several experiments are planned for EMCS and Biolab, which will also host some US experiments under the ISLSWG agreement. EMCS experiments deal primarily with the effects of gravity on plant cells, roots and physiology. They have the potential of finding applications in food production on Earth and in space. Biolab, as a highly versatile facility that can process all kinds of biological samples almost automatically, will accommodate a variety of biology experiments on cells and small organisms. They include the first "scorpionaut" in space, to study the influence of the space environment the biological clock. Furthermore, several experiments will try to unravel the influence of gravity on cellular mechanisms such as signal transduction and gene expression. These two effects are important steps in the reaction of a cell to changes in its environment, so the results are important for finding causes or treatments for diseases on Earth.

Human Physiology

Some research requires the EPM, to study the influence of gravity on the human body, in particular the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system and muscles. Their titles (see table) highlight their clear relevance for addressing health issues on Earth. For example, the study on heart diseases forms part of a comprehensive programme that includes clinical trials of possible new treatments of certain forms of heart failure.

Read more about: Material science, fluid science experiments and external payloads...........