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The International Space Station

on 17 December 2014


Launched in 1998, the International Space Station is one of the most ambitious international collaborations in history. The United States, Russia, Japan and Canada, share with Europe the 360-tonne and 820 cubic metres of pressurised space station - enough room for its crew of six persons and a vast array of scientific experiments.

The construction of the station began in November 1998 with the launch of Russia’s Zarya module. Assembly was delayed due to the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, which also resulted in the decision to retire all Space Shuttles after the completion of the Station. The last major part of the Space Station delivered by a space shuttle was the AMS-02 instrument in May 2011.

One more pressurised module will be attached to the Station: Russia’s Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module is as big as Zarya and Zvezda. It will be installed on the Earth-facing docking port of the Zvezda module.

The International Space Station with ATV-2 and Endeavour

Image credit: ESA/NASA

ESA is responsible for two key Station elements: the European Columbus laboratory and the Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV), supply vessels propelled into space on the Ariane 5 rocket. Cupola, an European element also, is a dome-like structure with a circular 80 cm diameter top window and other six side windows. This dome provides astronauts visibility in all directions. The European robotic arm will be launched in 2015 and will serve the Russian modules.

The first European astronaut flew into space in 1983. Since 1998, the European Astronauts Centre prepare men and women for space missions. The first European to be part of a crew on the International Space Station was Umberto Guidini, in April 2001.


The International Space Station is a unique scientific platform that allows to study the impact of microgravity and other spatial effects on everyday life, and also the development of innovative experiments which could not be carried out elsewhere.

From commissioning and to date, the ISS made possible series of important discoveries in health, telemedicine, education and Earth observation from space, whose benefits have been demonstrated to humanity. Wr can include here the research in vaccine development, the images provided by the station and used in disaster management and agriculture, the educational programs that inspire future scientists, engineers and explorers, and these are just a few examples of how this innovative research center strengthens the economy and improves the quality of life on Earth.

Benefits tsunami

Image credit: NASA

For example, on 13 March 2011, the crew aboard the International Space Station answered in real time to the crisis situation on the eastern coast of Japan, which was shaken by the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, and which spawned a tsunami that flooded much of the island of Honshu. The image illustrates two unique aspects of the station for Earth observation and disaster response. Using handheld digital cameras, the crew has the capability to capture sunglint on water surfaces with greater frequency and control than most satellite-based systems -this provides an enhanced capability to detect and map standing water on the land’s surface and may also indicate areas of particular environmental and health concern for contaminants. True-color images such as these, taken at a variety of pixel resolutions, can also be transmitted to responders on the ground and are readily understandable- little to no post-processing of the imagery is required.


Image credit: ESA

And in terms of knowledge of the Sun and its effects on Earth were made impressive progresses through the suite of SOLAR intruments of the European Space Agency, which records almost the entire spectrum of sunlight from the the International Space Station.

Aboard the International Space Station were obtained encouraging results in the health area also. Following an experiment conducted in 2006, researchers discovered the factor that prevents immune cells to work optimally, which is a specific transmitter in immune cells, called Rel/NF-κB path, which no longer operates under weightlessness.


Columbus -  a research laboratory which is permanently attached to the International Space Station and provides internal payload accommodation for experiments in the field of multidisciplinary research into material science, fluid physics and life science. In addition, an external payload facility hosts experiments and applications in the field of space science, Earth observation and technology.

Cut-away view of the Columbus Laboratory

Credit imagine: ESA

The Automated Transfer Vehicles - on which the International Space Station depends, since the regular deliveries of equipment and spare parts as well as food, air and water are possible through them. Since its first mission in 2008 Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has been indispensable to the International Space Station. Every 12 months or so, ATV hauls 7.7 tonnes of cargo from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana to the Station 340 km above the Earth. High-precision navigation systems guide ATV on a rendezvous trajectory to the International Space Station where it automatically docks with the Station's Russian service module. ATV remains there as a pressurised and integral part of the Station for up to six months until its final mission: a fiery one-way trip into Earth's atmosphere to dispose of up to 6.4 tonnes of Station waste.

Cutaway view of the Automated Transfer Vehicle

image credit: ESA

The European robotic arm - which will work together with the new Russian segment of the International Space Station to transfer small payloads from inside directly to outside the ISS.

DMS-R - ESA’S Data Management System - which provides guidance, navigation and control for the entire International Space Station, Onboard systems and subsystems control, Failure management and recovery, Time distribution, time tagging and synchronisation Data acquisition and control for on-board systems and experiments.

Node 2 - a pressurised module which serves as a connecting passage between the European Columbus laboratory, the US laboratory Destiny and the Japanese laboratory Kibo.

The Node 2 connecting module node full image 2

Image credit: ESA

Node-3 or Tranquillity - is the module that houses the life support equipment necessary for the International Space Station crew. It also accommodates ESA's Cupola observation module.

The Node-3 connecting module node full image 2

Image credit: ESA

Cupola - the observation module which provides an observation and work area for the International Space Station crew that gives visibility to support the control of the Station's robotic arms and a beautiful view of Earth, celestial objects and visiting vehicles. Cupola is where ESA's Nightpod camera aid is installed to help astronauts take sharper pictures at night.

Cupola a room with a view on space node full image 2

Image credit: ESA/ESA / D.Ducros


There are two ground control centres for control and operate the European contributions to the International Space Station: the Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC), located at the Space Operations Centre of the German Space Agency (DLR), in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich in Germany, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the Automated Transfer Vehicle Control Centre (ATV-CC). Col-CC controls and operates the Columbus laboratory and coordinates European experiments while ATV-CC controls and operates the European ATV spacecraft. The majority of the Columbus and ATV systems are operated automatically. 

Control centres monitor performance of operations and, in case of changes or malfunctions, prepare and perform updates.


14 January 2014: Astronauts evacuated from International Space Station due to a possible chemical leak

According to NBC news, on Wednesday, 14 January, the crew of the International Space Station were forced to evacuate the U.S. section, after a possible chemical leak. The crew moved to the Russian part of the facility, while the U.S. section of the ISS was sealed off.

The "toxic substance was emitted from a cooling system into the station's atmosphere" in the US segment of the station, the Russian Federal Space Agency said, quoted by NBC news.

NASA declared that the Expedition 42 crew members are safe and in good shape inside the Russian segment of the International Space Station following an alarm in the U.S. segment. For the time being it is not yet known if the alarm was actually triggered by a leak or whether the situation was caused by a faulty sensor or by a problem in a computer. (Source)

No official statements have been made by ESA at the time of this report, apart from sharing information from NASA.

According to The Telegraph, the accident could delay the departure of the US SpaceX cargo ship Dragon, which brought supplies earlier this week. Fixing the leak may also require an emergency spacewalk.

The International Space Station experienced a similar event in May 2013, when astronauts aboard ISS performed an emergency spacewalk to hunt for an ammonia leak in the orbiting laboratory's cooling system. Details here.


The cost of the International Space Station, including development, assembly and running costs over 10 years, comes to €100 billion. That €100 billion figure is shared over a period of almost 30 years between all participants: the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 10 of the 20 European nations who are part of ESA. The European share, at around €8 billion spread over the whole programme, amounts to just one Euro spent by every European every year: less than the price of a cup of coffee in most of our big cities.

Just that €1 has made it possible to develop and assemble in the Space Station, to build the ground infrastructure and to operate and use the Station for world-class research for more than 10 years. All this while generating high-tech jobs in European industry and research institutions, contributing to the build up of Europe as a peaceful information society, and to the greatest international cooperative project ever undertaken.

The 12 ESA Member States participating in the International Space Station programme are: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and Romania since December 2014.


ELIPS – European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences in Space – is ESA’s research programme for science and applications in microgravity, helping to improve our life on Earth and enable humankind’s long-term presence in space.

The cornerstone of ELIPS is the International Space Station and its European Columbus laboratory. The areas of scientific study are many and diverse: from fundamental physics to human physiology, from new alloys to plant roots. The programme involves some 1500 scientists in hundreds of experiments, as well as a large and diverse group of industrial research and development users.

Since the programme began in 2001, ELIPS has produced many advances for a variety of scientific disciplines and also for the european citizens. With the assembly of the Space Station complete and permanently crewed by six astronauts, more time than ever is being spent on experiments that cannot be done on Earth.

The European involvement in the Space Station is a testament to the endeavours of European industry and a sign of the commitment shown by ESA to European human spaceflight activities and its international partners.


The first Romanian experiment aboard the International Space Station, CFS (Colored Fungi in Space), a collaboration between the Institute of Space Sciences, the Institute of Biology of the Romanian Academy and the National Technical University of Athens, was held in February 2011, when four biocontainers containing fungi were sent on the ISS aboard the Discovery spacecraft. The experiment was hosted by ESA's Columbus Module and it accomplished the objective to determine the effect of microgravity and cosmic radiation on the growth and survival of species of fungi colored.

Starting 2 December 2014 Romania joined ESA's Member States participating in the International Space Station: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, together with partners from the USA, Russia, Canada and Japan.