A visit to the heart of European space research

Road Trip 2011: An hour south of Amsterdam, the European Space Agency maintains ESTEC, its primary environmental testing and research hub. This is where ESA readies satellites for space and much more.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

This is the full-scale mockup of Columbus, the module placed on the International Space Station by the European Space Agency. The mockup is located at ESTEC, the agency's main test and research center. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NOORDWIJK, The Netherlands--I'm inside Columbus, one of the modules of the International Space Station, trying to decide whether I'm more interested in the glovebox that allows scientists to work on experiments in a vacuum or in the exercise bike.

Actually, I'm not really in space--I'm about an hour south of Amsterdam. But I am inside Columbus, at least a full-size mockup of it that's located here, inside ESTEC--the European Space Research and Technology Center--part of the European Space Agency (ESA).

I've come as part of Road Trip 2011, and as someone interested in the work space agencies do and who has visited a number of NASA installations back home, I'm here to get a primer on what the Europeans are up to when it comes to space research.

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The ESA has 18 member states, mostly in Europe, but also including Canada, and it is NASA's counterpart across the pond. As for ESTEC, it has a number of different mandates, but broadly speaking, they fall into four main areas: Developing and managing ESA missions; Supporting the ESA's space systems and associated technologies with technical and managerial expertise; Running an environmental test center for spacecraft; and providing the European space industry and corresponding institutions with logistical support.

During my visit, I'm checking out several different ESTEC areas--the test center, the human spaceflight center, the propulsion lab, the robotics and haptics labs, and the life and physical science and life support lab. That's a lot for one day, but when you have the chance to explore a place like this, you take all you can get.

Test Center
My host at the test center is its head, Gaetan Piret. He takes me first to what's known as the acoustic chamber, a huge room used to reproduce the noise of a rocket launch in a bid to see if various satellites are hardy enough to be sent into space. The room has four huge speakers built into the walls, and together they generate noise up to 256 decibels for one to two minutes, enough to see if a satellite can handle a launch.

This is crucial for ESTEC, because a big part of its business is evaluating commercial satellites for European telecommunications firms. And if one of those satellites is vibrated into dysfunction by the tremendous noise of a launch, that means a terrific financial hit for its owner.

Many of the satellites that are tested here, Piret said, do in fact turn out to have problems with the noise and require some kind of retrofitting. But at least it's happening in the test phase, he explains, rather than on the back of a very expensive rocket. And, for the most part, those are workmanship issues that require just a few days to fix, rather than design flaws.

Another big part of the test center is its shaker. This, too, is built to evaluate the space-worthiness of satellites, and in this case, it subjects them to earthquake-level shuddering in a bid to ensure that the equipment can handle the rigors of being sent into space.

At the same time, the shaker is also contracted out to other industries, such as transportation, because companies in those fields cannot always find facilities that are capable of putting their equipment through the proper paces. For example, during my visit, I saw a section of airplane fuselage waiting to be put on the shaker. Other customers might be companies wanting to know if their sensitive equipment can handle being sent over the rough roads and bouncy trains of developing countries like China.

The test center also contains a couple other major facilities, the large space simulator, and the small space simulator. These are meant to create vacuum and high-temperature conditions in which satellites can be subjected to a space-like environment. The LSS can also subject satellites to a sun simulator.

The next stop on my tour was ERASMUS, the ESTEC human spaceflight center. This is largely a group of demonstration projects rather than fully functional research facilities, but according to my host here, the center's event coordinator, Sander Verkerk, some actual testing goes on as well.

The first thing he shows me is a scale-model of a drop tower. This is about providing a simulation of microgravity, something that is necessary for many scientific experiments--such as those involving fluids or gases, or even combustion--that need a simulation of the lack of gravity in space, and something that happens when you drop an object suddenly from a certain height. The drop tower in the center here provides several about two seconds of microgravity, but that's enough for some experiments, Verkerk explained. This, however, is just a model of a much larger drop tower that ESA maintains in Germany, and which can offer students and others four seconds microgravity.

Not far away from the drop tower here is a model of part of the interior of an airplane that takes parabolic flights in order to provide a zero-gravity experience for scientists and others. The model is meant, Verkerk explained, to give those who will be going on such a flight a sense of what they will experience on board. Essentially, he said, it's an instrument tool to show people what it's like on the plane and ideally cut short what might otherwise be up to two days of training. The trainer has a screen that shows what happens on the plane, as well as other tools to help them prepare.

Another element of the ERASMUS center is its full-scale model of the Columbus module of the International Space Station. Columbus was built for the ISS by the ESA, and was the space agency's contribution to the ISS in return for having a number of crucial components taken to the ISS aboard NASA's Space Shuttle.

Inside the Columbus model, ERASMUS has done a faithful job of recreating most of the major elements of the module: drawers that were installed on a rack that are used for conducting experiments; a glove box used to run experiments in a vacuum; an exercise station that allows the ISS astronauts to stay in shape; and a centrifuge used as part of a biolab.

Verkerk explained that the Columbus mockup was originally used to train astronauts who were actually going to the ISS, but that job is now handled by an ESA facility in Cologne, Germany. But even now, when scientific experiments are being done aboard the real Columbus, they can be run in parallel in the mockup to see how the results differ.

Lastly, he showed me the Mars 500 project, a mockup of a facility used to simulate the effects on astronauts of a mission to Mars, a trip that is expected to take 500 days or so. For the project, six volunteers were isolated for 500 days in a simulator that offers conditions nearly identical to what they'd experience in their spacecraft, including 20-minute communications delays. The goal is to see what the psychological effects are of being locked away for so long.

Robotics and Haptics
Another stop on my ESTEC tour took me to the Robotics and Haptics Labs, where engineer and Ph.D. student Joao Rebelo demonstrated some of the work being done there on the latest in exoskeletons.

The idea, Rebelo explained, is to develop technologies that can allow us to control robots from a distance. That would be important for, say, Mars missions, during which astronauts may well "drive" rovers while in capsules orbiting the planet.

In order to do that, the lab has developed a series of exoskeletons that let people make all kinds of hand and arm gestures and then have a robot repeat those movements remotely.

For now, remotely means digitally, so whoever is using the exoskeletons--complex contraptions that you can put your arm into--is controlling the movements of the digital robotic hand on a screen. Previous generations of these devices had little flexibility, meaning that it really only fit properly on one body type. If you were too tall or too short, you struggled to use it. A newer prototype has solved that problem by adjusting to the size of the wearer.

For now, all the work is being done here at ESTEC. Soon, some of the robots will be based outside the lab, or even outside ESTEC. But within five or six years, Rebelo said, he hopes that they will be able to put one of their exoskeletons on the space station and have someone control robots back on Earth. Still, there are some significant hurdles to that, including the fact that the mechanical controls required have not yet been created, and the inconvenient reality that no one knows how zero gravity affects haptics.

Planetary protection
My last stop of the day was to the Life and Physical Sciences Instrumentation Section, where the lab's head, Robert Linder, talked to me about some of the work being done there to ensure that when and if humans make it to other planets, we don't bring any uninvited microbes with us.

According to Linder, there are internationally agreed-upon standards for the levels of microbes humans can bring with us into space in a bid to ensure we don't contaminate our destinations. So Linder's lab is busy conducting experiments on how extreme heat and cold affect certain microbes.

Linder's purview also includes a gravity simulation lab that features a large centrifuge (see video below) that is used both to provide scientists with an environment where they can mimic zero gravity--something that is useful when experimenting with "slow systems" like plants and other biological material--and to test how materials react to the loss of normal positioning. So, if an experiment is done on plants over several weeks, he said, the results may be roots growing in many different directions.

This is all pretty heady stuff, but it's good to get a front-row seat and see how space research is being done in other countries. As an American, it's easy to think that the only work in the area is being done at home, but here, it's clear that while the Europeans don't have anything like the space shuttle, they do have serious scientists doing serious work that could benefit all mankind. And of course, even America will soon not have the space shuttle.