A cubesat-sized Ice Cubes experiment container showed inside a mockup of Europe's Columbus ISS module. Credit: ESA

BREMEN, Germany — The Ice Cubes initiative, a public-private partnership between the European Space Agency and Belgium-based Space Applications Services, will send a first batch of commercial experiments to the International Space Station this spring.

Billed by ESA as “the first commercial European opportunity to conduct research in space,” Ice Cubes offers researchers room to conduct experiments inside Europe’s Columbus module aboard the ISS.

The first five experiments to be flown under Ice Cubes range from plant biology to gyroscopes to heat-transfer in fluids.

Space Applications Services’ business development manager, Hilde Stenuit, said the company receives a lot of interest mostly from the science and research community but expects substantial growth in interest from the industry, including pharmaceutical and materials research.

The interest is quite huge,” Stenuit told SpaceNews on the sidelines of the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, Oct. 26. “We are in contact with a lot of the traditional science community that has been using ISS and they are seeing the potential of going this commercial route. But at the same time we are seeing also interest from industrial R&D and also in terms of in-orbit demonstration and validation for technologies for space exploration.”

Space Application Services, which signed a contract with ESA in June, sells four-month research slots at ISS for 50,000 euros ($58,000) per kilogram of payload to universities and commercial customers. Primary and secondary education customers get a 15,000-euro discount. The deal includes transportation to the ISS, as well as services around maintaining the experiment and provision of data.

Space Applications Services can accommodate 20 cubes the size of a 1U cubesat inside Columbus. The company expects to be launching new experiments every four months but customers can extend their slot or apply for a shorter timeframe, Stenuit said.

Stenuit said that despite being a public-private partnership with ESA, the project is not restricted to customers from ESA member states.

“We are talking to customers in emerging countries,” Steinut said. “There is a lot of interest and there is no limitation on our side, we are happy to take anybody on board.”

Steinut said she sees a lot of potential for the growth of the market, as the awareness of microgravity research opportunities is currently limited.

“I consider it my personal mission to go and explain the value of what the industry could be doing on the space station,” she said. “There is so much industrial R&D that could be done on the space station and a lot of the sectors are not aware of the potential.”

Europe’s commercial foothold on the ISS is growing. Next year, Ice Cubes will be accompanied by Bartolomeo, a commercial platform operated by Airbus Defence and SPace. Bartolomeo, to be attached to the Columbus module as an outside balcony, will be able to host up to 250 kilograms of customer payload in the outside conditions.

Tereza Pultarova is a London-based science and technology journalist and video producer, covering European space developments for SpaceNews. A native of the Czech Republic, she has a bachelors degree in journalism from the Charles University,...