Irish firm gets lift-off for ESA Columbus module

6 Dec 2007

An Irish company has developed core technology for the operation of the European Space Agency’s Columbus Module that is due to take off from the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral tonight at 9.31pm.

The Columbus module is the first European laboratory devoted to long-term research in space. A key task for the astronauts will be to successfully manage the numerous and diverse experiments in the laboratory.

Astronauts will access Dublin company Skytek’s iPV system on a daily basis, via laptops located in the module.

Skytek’s iPV technology has been in use on board the International Space Station (ISS) for the past two years and is fundamental to operations as it stores, controls and manages all procedures relating to routine daily tasks and mission-critical events such as space walks and emergency procedures.

This multimillion Euro iPV project is the first time the ESA has used Irish software technology on board the ISS.

“As an integral part of the first European module of the ISS this puts Irish technology on a global stage,” explained Paul Kiernan, technical director of Skytek.

“Our product greatly enhances the safety and type of activities that the astronauts can perform on board the ISS. Once the Columbus module has been deployed the system will form the basis for the full utilisation of the module and the exciting scientific research that will be undertaken,” Kiernan added.

Over the past few months hundreds of Columbus procedures have been uploaded to the iPV system and once the Columbus orbital facility is fully commissioned astronauts will use the system on a daily basis to manage all the experiments on board the module.

The Columbus ground control centre located near Munich will monitor all activities of the astronauts undertaken through iPV and be able to retrieve scientific results through data and video feeds.

All procedures and reference material relating to Columbus operations will be stored on the system so that astronauts will be guided by iPV through everything from operation of the scientific equipment to maintenance and repair of critical systems of the Columbus module to keep it fully operational.

A series of ground-breaking experiments are planned to take place on board that will include investigating the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. The results of the experiments will also contribute to an increased understanding of terrestrial problems such as the ageing process, osteoporosis, balance disorders and muscle wastage.

Skytek is currently involved in collaboration with Astrium, Bremen in the Columbus LAPAP MK II project. This system is the next-generation crew interface for Columbus. It provides direct command and control of all Columbus subsystems through graphical displays on laptops. The system is expected to be sent and deployed on Columbus on a later shuttle mission.

“The Skytek system is important to the Columbus module for three fundamental reasons,” said Mikael Wolff, Columbus operations manager. “It further ensures the safety of our astronauts, enhances the efficiency in which they can carry out procedures and its use of XML technology will represent a cost saving for ground personnel by making procedure changes easier to implement.”

Skytek originally developed the system for the European Space Agency and the technology was adopted by NASA and the other space station partners in 2003.

Skytek has a keen focus on the development of intellectual property and research and is now exploiting the technology’s capability in non-space environments. The technology is unique in the marketplace and has considerable application outside the space industry.

Critical tasks in sectors such as aviation and oil exploration also require tightly controlled procedures and its technology can have similar safety and procedural benefits for these companies.

“Our products were developed for the pioneering space industry and now we are using this expertise as we expand into other industries,” explained Dr Sarah Bourke, CEO of Skytek.

“Skytek will launch its first commercial product AECIM early next year. Our technology will revolutionise aircraft maintenance and will eliminate all paper from maintenance operations. This system has been developed in association with Lufthansa Technik and is currently in final testing with Shannon Aerospace (a Lufthansa company).”

Commenting on the adaptation of the technology for aircraft maintenance, Martin Kaiser, CEO of Shannon Aerospace, said: “We envisage that the technology will streamline our processes and move us closer to the customer. This will strengthen our competitiveness, increase operational efficiency and reduce the administrative burden on our customers.”

By John Kennedy