When the Orbital ATK’s (now Northrop Grumman) Cygnus OA-9 cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) in May with three tons’ worth of supplies and science gear, the spacecraft delivered — among other intriguing experiments — the famous ICE Cube Service, the Inquisitr reported at the time.
This pioneering project stands for International Commercial Experiment and is the first commercial opportunity to conduct research on board the ISS offered by the European Space Agency (ESA) to potential clients.
This state-of-the-art service runs on a full-functioning lab installed inside the ISS’s Columbus module and which consists of a series of modular containers (cubes) about the size of a microwave oven, stacked in a rack system that allows each cube to run its own science experiment independently.
“The ICE Cubes facility in ESA’s space laboratory Columbus offers plug-and-play installation for cube-sized experiments that relay experiment data back to Earth through the International Space Station’s infrastructure,” ESA recently explained in a news release, announcing that this unique lab is ready to start performing science operations in orbit.
Built in partnership with Space Application Services (SpaceAps) in Belgium, this lab-within-a-lab aims to open up the access to microgravity experiments for private companies, educational institutions, students who are working on their graduation thesis, and many other customers.
“The ICE Cubes service allows experiments to run for over four months in space. Astronaut time and expert advice come as part of the package and experiments and samples can be returned to Earth for analysis,” explained ESA.
The ICE Cube project was officially inaugurated on July 13 with a special event hosted in Belgium, and the first two experiments have already been installed in their respective ICE Cubes.
The two experiments were supplied by the International Space University — the first ESA customer to perform research in space via the new modular system — and were set up in the ICE Cube lab earlier this month by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, flight engineer for Expedition 56.
Footage of the ICE Cubes being hooked up to the main lab is available in the video below, featuring Gerst in the Columbus module.
According to ESA, the first experiment involves methane-producing bacteria, which are being researched to find out how they behave in zero gravity, with the end goal of one day possibly being used to produce enough methane to fuel future space exploration missions.
The second experiment to be housed in one of ESA’s ICE Cubes is described as “an interactive artwork in space” and is based on an installation that links Earth with space to transmit video information that lets you see your heart beat as a kaleidoscope dance.
The system is activated by the user from the ground, by connecting to a heart monitor that sends the pulse rate data to the ICE Cube to be processed by a kaleidoscope. This, in turn, beams back video data so that the user can see how the kaleidoscope moves in reaction to their heart beat.
“These first experiments highlight the versatility of this easier, faster and more affordable access to research in weightlessness, ensuring any company, entity or educational institution can be a part of orbital research for years to come,” ESA officials state.
The system is designed so that each user can access the data from their own experiment from the mission control center on the SpaceAps premises in Sint-Stevens-Woluwe, Belgium.