On this day ten years ago, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus laboratory was launched into orbit, safely nestled in the mammoth cargo bay of the space shuttle Atlantis. In the decade that has followed its integration with the International Space Station (ISS), Columbus has become an invaluable asset to the agency, allowing astronauts to conduct research that benefits people living both on and off our blue planet.
Orbiting high above the Earth's surface, the ISS stands as a veritable bastion of scientific endeavor and achievement. More than this, it serves as an example of what can be achieved through international co-operation and peace, even in a time of mounting mistrust and geopolitical tension back on Earth.
February 7, 2008, marks the date at which NASA launched ESA's single greatest contribution to the ISS into orbit – the state-of-the-art microgravity laboratory, Columbus. The mission, designated STS-122, saw the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis transport the shiny new module to the space station, where it was integrated and subsequently commissioned.
The work of attaching the 23 ft (7 m) long, 15 ft (4.5 m) wide Columbus laboratory to the Harmony module of the ISS was completed on February 11, with Atlantis safely returning to Earth after 13 days in orbit on February 20. STS-122 ESA astronaut Léopold Eyharts remained behind to help complete the job of commissioning the module.
In the decade since it became a part of the ISS, Columbus has proven itself to be an incredibly versatile work space. Mounted within its cylindrical hull are 10 racks, each roughly the size of a phone booth. Eight of the racks are secured to the walls of the habitat, with a further two set on the ceiling. Each rack is essentially an independent laboratory, with its own power and cooling systems, and communication links to terrestrial scientists involved in the given research.
Columbus also boasts exterior mounting platforms that allow for the conducting of experiments that require either direct access to the vacuum of space, or a direct line of sight to Earth.
The module's architecture, in conjunction with its location in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit, has allowed astronauts aboard the ISS to undertake a staggering volume of scientific research, ranging from fluid science to better understanding the detrimental effects of ageing.
Research conducted on the ISS has the dual purpose of working to extend the capabilities of human spaceflight, and to improve the quality of life for the billions of people inhabiting the Earth. For example, research conducted in the Columbus examining the driving factors of bone loss in astronauts could help physicians treat patients suffering from osteoporosis. Other experiments have looked into the effects of microgravity on plant life, with the findings having the potential to help scientists develop hardier crops to sew back on Earth, that could better withstand the rigours of climate change.
Whilst it is unlikely that you are going to see the Columbus lab in person, you can take a virtual, 360-degree tour of the entire ISS.
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