Paris, 25 Nov 2005
The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a new EU-funded project under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to open up access to the International Space Station (ISS) for new groups of researchers. Two million euro is available to support the transport and execution of selected scientific and industrial experiments over the next four years.
Opportunities to perform experiments in the ISS have previously been limited to researchers based in one of ESA's 17 member countries that currently contribute to funding the space station. An Announcement of Opportunity under this new SURE ('International Space Station: a Unique Research Infrastructure') initiative is targeted especially at new EU Member Sates, accession countries and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Speaking at the project's launch on 18 November, Maurizio Belingheri, Head of the ISS Commercialisation Division of ESA particularly welcomed 'this recognition by the EU of the ISS as a research infrastructure of European interest'.
While project selection will be on scientific criteria alone, judged by an independent review panel under FP6 rules, special efforts will be undertaken to promote and raise awareness of the opportunity in non-ESA member countries. Priority countries are EU Member States Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as the two accession countries Bulgaria and Romania.
Marc Heppener, Head of ESA's ISS Utilisation and Microgravity Promotion Division, explained that full funding for the best scientific projects 'will include transport to and from the ISS as well as operation.' He also emphasised that although Europe is already the main user of the ISS for scientific research, the new project aimed to send a strong message that not only ESA members are eligible for support to use the space station's microgravity environment.
The low-gravity on board the orbiting space station creates unique conditions for the study of biology (cell division and antibiotic sensitivity), human physiology (osteoporosis) and physics (solidification of metals and fluid interface combustion). ESA also coordinates another FP6 project, IMPRESS, which is using the microgravity conditions of the ISS to study new, high-performance inter-metallic alloys.
As well as the fully-funded scientific research, industrial projects submitted by SMEs will be eligible for 50 percent co-funding by the SURE project. Mr Belingheri explained that selection would be based on the experiment's potential to lead to applications contributing to European competitiveness. The companies whose projects are chosen will retain full ownership of the results for transfer to market.
A brief, non-binding initial notification of interest can be submitted up to 31 January 2006, followed up by a full proposal by 15 April and selection by Autumn 2006. Scientific experiments will be particularly encouraged in the key research areas of quantum physics, heat exchange, planetary exploration and nanotechnology.
Mr Heppener expects between 10 and 12 projects to be selected for operation over the project's four-year lifespan. Project success and over-subscription by high-quality projects could lead to further funding and potentially, follow-up activities under the next framework programme (FP7), he said.
The European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) has already included ISS upgrades in its list of opportunities for development during FP7. The group, launched in April 2002, is developing a "road map" for a new generation of large-scale research infrastructures of European interest for the next twenty years.
ESA's 17 Member States comprise EU Member States Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, plus Norway and Switzerland. Though independent of the European Union, ESA maintains close ties through an ESA/EC Framework Agreement and they are working together on a European space policy.