Columbus lab opens for science research

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The European Space Agency last week took a step - literally - into its future as a full partner in the ownership and utilisation of the International Space Station when French-born astronaut Leopold Eyharts entered ESA's Columbus laboratory on 12 February following its attachment to the ISS at 21.44 GMT on 11 February.

The delivery of the EADS Astrium-built laboratory by the crew of NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis on flight day five of the orbiter's mission STS-122 marked the beginning of ESA's co-ownership of the station. ESA officials expect the station to continue to operate beyond the planned end of its operational life in 2016, potentially up to 2020, giving the laboratory almost 12 years for scientific research.

Eyharts entered the laboratory to begin its activation and commissioning process. ESA astronauts will spend six months in every 24 on the ISS conducting scientific research. The agency is also negotiating with Russia and NASA, to buy further time allocated to cosmonauts and to exploit the US space agency's bilateral agreement with Italy, potentially increasing its ISS time to six months every year.

"[It's] another great day for the European Space Agency, a great day for our European industry and a great day for Europe in general," says ESA's ISS programme manager, Alan Thirkettle.

ESA's next major step in its ISS involvement is the launch of its cargo ship, the 19,400kg (42,600lb) Automated Transfer Vehicle called Jules Verne. Arianespace took delivery on 9 February of the Evolution Storable (ES) rocket, the version of the Ariane 5 that will orbit the ATV, when it was transferred from the Kourou, French Guiana based-spaceport's Launcher Integration Building.

There it had been assembled by prime contractor EADS Astrium before being moved to the Final Assembly Building, where Arianespace will oversee the ATV's integration with the rocket. Jules Verne's launch from Kourou is scheduled for 01:25 local time on 8 March.