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EuTEF Gives Europe a Research Platform
12.04.07
The EuTEF experiment platform undergoes testing. The European Technology Exposure Facility, EuTEF, is holding nine experiments from European researchers. The research platform has a power supply and other features that allow the projects to operate independently from astronauts. Credit: ESA

Fabio Tominetti and Marco Grilli work on the EuTEF mission. Fabio Tominetti, left, and Marco Grillli of Carlos Gavazzi work in an office near NASA's Kennedy Space Center as the EuTEF was being prepared for launch. Credit: NASA/Steven Siceloff

The EuTEF experiment ready for launch. The EuTEF will ride into space attached to a platform in space shuttle Atlantis' payload bay. During the mission, spacewalking astornauts will move the experiment package to the outside of the Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. Credit: ESA

If the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus laboratory is a house for cutting-edge research, the European Technology Exposure Facility is on the front porch.

The platform known as EuTEF is designed to host research that needs to be performed in the extreme environment of space.

That means EuTEF has to be located outside Columbus where there is no air, no gravity and temperatures that cycle every 90 minutes between app. 100 degrees and minus 100 degrees. Also, researchers have to compensate for the intense radiation dosage their experiments will receive in orbit.

NASA will ferry ESA’s Columbus module to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Atlantis during mission STS-122. A series of spacewalks will bolt the lab to the space station.

The lab is made up of a 23-foot-long cylinder that is pressurized, which means station residents can live and work inside it without spacesuits. EuTEF and SOLAR, the ESA provided sister payload to EuTEF,will operate on the outside of the cylinder, where astronauts cannot easily reach them.

Researchers had to design experiments to work on their own without breaking down during the 18 months the EuTEF will stay in orbit. The research is also set up to send the results down to control centers on Earth.

ESA has setup the facility by selecting and supporting a number of European instruments to fly to the Space Station. The contract to develop the platform was awarded to Carlo Gavazzi Space in Milan, Italy.

"EuTEF is an excellent platform for scientists to fly smaller experiments to the ISS and to expose the samples to the unique, harsh environment of space," said ESA’s EuTEF project manager Jan Dettmann. "We are very satisfied that we received a lot of good experiment proposals and that we were able to accommodate nine different ones on EuTEF."

"You have to be sure 100 percent that everything is working for at least the mission period," said Fabio Tominetti, EuTEF's program manager for Gavazzi.

"It's a challenge because you don't have much power available," said Marco Grilli, a systems engineer for Gavazzi. "You have to minimize the weight because you have strict weight requirements and, most of all, it's difficult because we have to create the requirements for the experiments and then we have to integrate everything."

Nine experiments have been attached to the EuTEF platform. They include research on how bacteria behave in space, several examples of new materials that will be tested, and a device to measure radiation levels.

Many of the experiments are meant to find out about space, but researchers are also excited about a camera mounted on the platform that will look back on Earth. Scientists and engineers like the camera because of its potential to raise interest and awareness of spaceflight in Europe. The camera will be pointed at Earth and schoolchildren throughout the continent may control the camera and snap pictures.

"In Europe and in Italy, it is different (than in the United States) because we are not so used to launching big payloads in space," Tominetti said. "This mission is mainly a European mission, so the whole European community is carefully watching this launch. So for Europe, this will really be the big step forward in space."

The nine experiments came from different European nations, which presented its own challenges.

"Dealing with different people, different ways of working, different habits, one of the most interesting and at the same time difficult parts of building EuTEF was working with different cultures and some people not used to working in the space business," Grilli said.

The designers took the barriers in stride and looked back on the experience as rewarding.

"Apart from some minor issues, of course, it was quite exciting," Tominetti said.

Both engineers said NASA and contractor workers shared invaluable expertise with them to help make the experiments successful.

With those problems solved, the experiments are tucked safely aboard Atlantis and Tominetti said expectations are starting to grow among scientists for the information they will receive from Columbus and EuTEF.

"We expect a big return in terms of science and for big returns in the future," he said. "We have seen with the last mission that already interest has grown and we expect even more for the next mission."

Steven Siceloff
Kennedy Space Center