A Refreshing Increase in Access to the Orbiting Lab

Preparation of the experiment cubes for the International Commercial Experiment, or ICE Cubes Service. (Credit: Space Applications Services)

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — A new, simple and cost-effective way to conduct experiments and test technology aboard the International Space Station offers another option to make space more accessible for out-of-this-world research.

A partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Space Application Services (SpaceAps) tests a new system for conducting research in space that lowers several barriers, including cost, development time and support. The International Commercial Experiment, or ICE Cubes Service, combines a sliding framework permanently installed in the space station’s Columbus module with “plug-and-play” Experiment Cubes. The easy to install and remove Experiment Cubes come in different sizes and often can be built with commercial off-the-shelf components, significantly reducing the cost and time to develop experiments. A ground model allows for integrated tests to verify all interface requirements and operational procedures.


The sliding framework permanently installed in the Columbus module for “plug-and-play” Experiment Cubes. (Credit: Space Applications Services)

“The idea is to provide fast, direct and affordable access to space for research, technology and education for any organization or customer,” says Hilde Stenuit of SpaceAps, which designed and developed the facility and made it flight-ready for recent delivery to the orbiting laboratory.

Following successful validation of the facility, the plan is to send the first batch of experiments using the system to the space station on an upcoming flight. These include a greenhouse used to observe plant growth rate and morphology under different lighting cycles in microgravity, an investigation of the effects of microgravity on bacteria in order to determine the feasibility of using the microorganisms to produce methane, and a kaleidoscope activated from the ground as a dynamic interactive art event.

SpaceAps, which has more than 30 years of experience developing and coordinating experiments for ESA research, provides service support to users of ICE Cubes. Researchers can monitor and control their orbiting Experiment Cubes in near real-time, from their own facilities, using the complimentary mission control software provided by SpaceAps.

An Experiment Cube installed in the ICE Cubes Facility (ICF) in the Columbus European Physiology Module (EPM) rack. (Credits: NASA)

Ice Cubes Service plans to offer rides on launches approximately every four months, allowing experiments to run for shorter or longer time periods, an important feature for potential commercial users. Use of the system includes astronaut time and expert advice.

“There are many benefits of doing research without the influence of gravity,” Stenuit says. “Removing gravity unveils effects not previously observed or not observable on Earth, allowing research that cannot possibly be done in terrestrial laboratories.”

ICE Cubes reduces the preparation time for launch and offers users one point of contact and a simple, fixed pricing policy.

The system supports both fundamental and applied research in a wide range of disciplines, from pharmaceutical development to experiments on stem cells, radiation, and microbiology, fluid sciences and more. It provides the opportunity to conduct testing and validation of space technologies and processes in a true space environment. Because ICE Cubes can accommodate free-floating experiments in the ESA Columbus module, it can even be used to test guidance, navigation and docking equipment. The system also can support education experiments and demonstrations to inspire future generations of scientists and explorers.

In short, ICE Cubes removes many barriers that limit access to space, providing more people access to flight opportunities.

An international partnership of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, the space station facilitates growth of a robust commercial market in low-Earth orbit, operating as a microgravity laboratory for scientific research and technology demonstrations under conditions not available on Earth. For daily updates on the science happening aboard the station, follow @ISS_ResearchSpace Station Research and Technology News, or our Facebook. For opportunities to see the space station pass over your town, check out Spot the Station.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    IceCube is a fun name but a more unique one would be better. One day someone will want to test cubes of solid water.