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ICE Cubes (International Commercial Experiment Cubes Service)

Background    Launch    ICE Cubes service    Hydras go to Space   Mission Status 
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The International Commercial Experiment Cubes Service (ICE Cubes) will provide rapid, simplified, low cost access to the International Space Station, creating the opportunity to maximize the use of the remaining lifetime of the ISS. The initial service will enable any organization, public or private entity or individual, such as universities, academic programs and pharmaceutical companies/research centers or private persons to perform experiments on the ISS.

The ICE Cubes Service is a simple and cost-effective way for your experiment or technology to fly onboard the International Space Station. Our team of experts have gained lots of experience in developing and coordinating experiments for ESA (European Space Agency) research experiments. At Space Applications Services, Brussels region of Belgium, we believe more people should have access to flight opportunities and with ICE Cubes we have made this possible. 1) 2) 3) 4)


Figure 1: A CubeSat-sized Ice Cubes experiment container shown inside a mockup of Europe's Columbus ISS module(image credit: ESA, Space Application Services)


Figure 2: Illustration of the ICF (ICE Cubes Facility), image credit: Space Applications Services

Setup as a partnership between Space Applications Services and ESA, the ICE Cubes service provides commercial access to space for research, technology and education and extends access to weightlessness to ensure humans live better, work smarter, and explore farther. 5)

The first experiment cubes are from the ISU (International Space University), Strasbourg, France, and will demonstrate the versatility of the experiments that can be carried on through the ICE Cubes service. Once on board the Space Station, the plug-and-play cubes need only to be installed into the facility by an astronaut. And the data collection can begin.

One of the cubes will study the microgravity's effect on microbes with the purpose to evaluate the feasibility of using them on asteroids to produce methane. Eventually, this methane could be used as a propellant, one of the most important resources a visiting spacecraft needs.



Some Background:

Fostering open technology innovation is not only about promoting broader use of the International Space Station (ISS) but could also have a positive impact on future missions to the Moon and Mars. ESA is committed to participating in the development of a market-driven economy in LEO (Low Earth orbit). ESA is partnering with private companies that are ready to share risks. He also highlights pilot projects that are aiming to demonstrate their feasibility and commercial viability. 6)

• July 12, 2018: ESA Education is inviting university student teams to submit proposals related to designing, building and operating an experiment that will be launched to the International Space Station and hosted inside the ICE Cubes facility for up to 4 months. — ESA Education is accepting proposals. Deadline: 2 September 2018. 7)

- Teams interested in participating to the Orbit Your Thesis! 2019 program should submit an accurately completed set of documents detailing the description of the experiments that they intend to perform. Nominally the proposed experiments should aim to fit into 1U Cube, however, depending on the complexity of the experiment and the availability of slots on the facility, ESA Education may consider experiments up to 4U. Experiments are required to be a key part of master or PhD theses, and the subject of the experiments investigations must necessitate long exposure to ISS environmental conditions.

- In a first instance, the Selection Board will short-list a restricted number of teams that will proceed to the next round of the selection process. This first selection will be based on eligibility criteria of the teams, the ISS environment relevance, the quality of the proposal, the educational benefits (e.g. number of students involved, relevance of the experiment for master or PhD graduation theses of one or more team members) and scientific merit.

- In a first instance, the Selection Board will short-list a restricted number of teams that will proceed to the next round of the selection process. This first selection will be based on eligibility criteria of the teams, the ISS environment relevance, the quality of the proposal, the educational benefits (e.g. number of students involved, relevance of the experiment for master or PhD graduation theses of one or more team members) and scientific merit.

- The minimum number of students to be actively involved in each student team is 6, however an active involvement of more students is highly recommended. Team composition should be clearly thought out with a well-balanced distribution of relevant skills for engineers and scientists and should be aligned with ESA's values to respect diversity and equal opportunities. The proposals shall also clarify how the student teams intend to cope with a possible turn-over, in order to replace team members who might decide to leave the project.

- The shortlisted teams will be given a week to complete a first draft of their Experiment Flight Safety Data Package (EFSDP), a technical document required from all teams that participate in the Orbit Your Thesis! program. The teams will then be invited to a selection workshop at ESA/ESTEC to present their experiment to the Selection Board, composed of engineers and scientists from Space Applications Services, ESA specialists from different functional areas (Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration, ESA Education Office) and members of the European Low Gravity Research Association (ELGRA). Based on these presentations and experiments' documentation, the Selection Board will identify the experiment recommended to fly onboard the ISS inside the ICE Cubes facility.

• In 2015, ESA launched a process for setting up strategic partnerships with the private sector to facilitate its exploration ambitions - and to foster growth and competitiveness of the European space and non-space industrial base Ref. 6).

- The initiative is nurturing the gradual establishment of private sector services, led by European companies for LEO exploitation in support of lunar exploration. It aims to strengthen the competitiveness of European industry, stimulate research and development and integrate innovative solutions into ESA space exploration missions.

- ESA's role in these commercial partnerships is to act as a business partner in developing new services or products on a non-exchange of funds principle, where the agency provides technical support, and reviews, business development support, co-funds technology development, and grant access to ESA facilities.

- The first results are already in: ESA has just signed the first commercial partnership agreement with Space Applications Services (SpaceApps) to provide quick, easy and low-cost access to the Space Station in less than a year using its ICE Cubes (International Commercial Experiment Cubes) service. ‘ICE Cubes' could allow access to a large number of users, including educational institutions, small and medium-sized enterprises, and research and development organizations.

•At Le Bourget on the 20th of June 2017, ESA signed its first ever commercial partnership for making use of the ISS (International Space Station). This agreement was signed, on behalf of ESA by David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, in the presence of Johann-Dietrich Woerner, ESA Director General, and enables ICE Cubes to become operational, with its first launch in 2018. 8) 9)


Launch: The CRS-15 (Commercial Resupply Service-15) mission of SpaceX lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on 29 June 2018 at 09:42 GMT with standard cargo for the International Space Station as well as the first 10 x 10 x 10 cm experiment cubes. 10) 11)

Orbit: Near-circular orbit of the ISS, altitude of ~400 km, inclination = 51.6º, period = 93 minutes.

Science instruments on the SpaceX CRS-15 logistics flight: 12)

- ECOSTRESS of NASA/JPL. measures the temperature of plants and uses that information to better understand how much water plants need and how they respond to stress.

- Mobile Companion, an ESA (European Space Agency) investigation, also known as CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion), explores the use of AI as a way to mitigate crew stress and workload during long-term spaceflight.

-Rodent Research-7 takes a look at how the microgravity environment of space affects the community of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, or micro biota.

- Angiex Cancer Therapy examines whether microgravity-cultured endothelial cells represent a valid in vitro model to test effects of vascular-targeted agents on normal blood vessels.

- Chemical Gardens are structures that grow during the interaction of metal salt solutions with silicates, carbonates or other selected anions. Their growth characteristics and attractive final shapes form from a complex interplay between reaction-diffusion processes and self-organization.

- ICE Cubes Facility along with the two Hydras payloads of ISU (International Space University).

These investigations join hundreds of others currently happening aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Canadarm2 to receive its new "hand": The SpaceX Dragon will also deliver a new "hand" for Canadarm2, the Canadian robotic arm aboard the ISS. This new LEE (Latching End Effector) will replace the unit astronauts removed during a series of spacewalks in the fall of 2017 and will ensure that Canadarm2 can continue performing maintenance tasks on the ISS and catching supply ships.

Secondary payloads:

a) Project Biarri Squad 1-3 technology demonstration: The Biarri project is a four nation defence related project involving Australia, the US, the UK and Canada to build three 3U CubeSats for precision formation flying experiments and a risk mitigation satellite.

b) Bhutan-1, a 1U CubeSat: Bhutan, along with Malaysia and the Philippines, is currently participating in the second joint global multi-nations BIRDS Project called BIRDS-2, initiated by KIT (Kyutech Institute of Technology), Japan, which is represented by four engineers from the telecom and space division of the information and communications ministry (MoIC).

c) MAYA-1, the first Filipino 1U CubeSat implemented by the PHL-Microsat Program of the University of the Philippines Diliman, in collaboration with the DOST-ASTI (Department of Science and Technology - Advanced Science and Technology Institute) and the KIT (Kyushu Institute of Technology), Japan. The development of the Maya-1 falls under BIRDS-2 (Birds Satellite Project; note: the BIRDS-2 CubeSats are Bhutan-1, MAYA-1 and UiTMSAT-1), a cross-border interdisciplinary satellite project that accommodates non-space faring countries.

d) UiTMSAT-1, a 1U CubeSat of Malaysia. JAXA arranged for the testing and the launch of the BIRDS-2 CubeSats to the ISS.


On 2 July 2018, the Dragon spacecraft was berthed to the Node-2/Harmony's Nadir (Earth-facing) Common Berthing Mechanism of the ISS. 13)

The first European facility for commercial research on the International Space Station was installed on 5 June 2018 in Europe's space laboratory Columbus. The International Commercial Experiments service – ICE Cubes for short – offers fast, simple and affordable access for research and technology experiments in microgravity. 14)

NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold installed the ice-box-sized facility in the European Physiology Module in the Columbus laboratory. ICE Cubes gets its power, temperature regulation and communications from Columbus.



ICE Cubes service

In partnership with Space Applications Services, ESA is extending access to research in weightlessness with ICE Cubes to ensure humans live better, work smarter, and explore farther. Research and educational institutions can run their payloads spanning various disciplines in the facility housed in the Columbus laboratory on the Space Station. At a reduced cost and with shorter book-to-fly time, research teams also benefit from 24 hour access to data via remote login and a dedicated control center.


Figure 3: Illustration of the ICE Cubes experiment unit: The 10 x 10 x 10 cm ICE cube unit accommodates payloads across various disciplines and is fitted into the facility housed in the Columbus laboratory of the ISS. Designed to be plug-and-play, the cubes are slotted in by an astronaut and then data collection begins. Researchers are able to access experiment data and even send commands 24-hours a day via remote login, thanks to a dedicated control center in Belgium (image credit: ICE Cubes/ISU) 15)

The newly installed ICE Cubes (International Commercial Experiments) service facility, providing commercial access to microgravity, will soon receive the first experiment cubes after today's successful SpaceX Dragon resupply launch.

The ISU (International Space University) is the first to run experiments in ICE Cubes. Once on board the Space Station, the plug-and-play cubes need only to be slotted into the facility by an astronaut. And the data collection begins (Ref. 10).

One cube will house an experiment that is continuing research on methane-producing microorganisms to see how they survive in space conditions. In the longer term, the knowledge gained could lead to these microorganisms for bio-mining of asteroids to produce methane to fuel future space missions.

The second ISU experiment is an interactive art installation that brings space to Earth and back again, highlighting the versatility of the ICE Cubes facility. The cube contains a kaleidoscope linked to a ground installation that is activated by the pulse of participants. The images are then beamed down to the installation to Earth, thanks to ICE Cubes' unique 24-hour accessibility.

"We're very excited to welcome the first ICE Cubes experiments by the International Space University. A big advantage of commercial access to the Space Station is that universities and other educational users get easier, faster and more affordable access to research in weightlessness," said David Parker, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration. "We can't wait to see what promising young minds come up with."

Researchers can access the data from their payloads at any time via a dedicated mission control center at Space Applications Services' premises in Sint-Stevens-Woluwe, Belgium. Clients can connect to their experiment from their own location over Internet to read the data and even send commands directly.

The ISU experiments will return to Earth on the next cargo resupply vehicle set to return in December this year. This is yet another advantage of the ICE Cubes service: experiments and samples can be returned for post-flight analysis with the regular cargo resupply missions that take place approximately every three months.


Figure 4: ICE Cubes in Columbus: The ICE Cubes facility is housed in the Columbus module of the International Space Station. The rack can accommodate 12 cubes on top and two rows of four cubes below (image credit: ESA/NASA) 16)



Hydras go to Space - Two ISU payloads launch to the International Space Station on CRS-15

The two payloads, Hydra-2 and Hydra-3, represent the interdisciplinary principles of ISU: Hydra-2 is a science payload and Hydra-3 is an interactive art one. Both were designed and built by ISU staff and Masters of Space Studies (MSS) students. The two black cubes, 10 cm on each side, each with a mass of 1 kg, are the first payloads to fly to the ISS with the new ICE Cubes (International Commercial Experiments Cubes) Service from Space Applications Services. Once delivered to the ISS by the SpaceX Falcon- 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule, they will be installed in the ICE Cubes facility in the European Space Agency's Columbus ISS module. 17)

Hydra-2/MMARS2, continues the investigation of methane-producing microorganisms (methanogens) in space that was initiated by the MMARS1 (Microbial Methane Associated Research Strasbourg – 1) payload that flew to the ISS in 2017 and continues its distinctive cooperation model. This combines ISU knowledge of the space environment, methanogen expertise from the University of Strasbourg/French National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of New South Wales in Australia and the financial support of the Eurometropole of Strasbourg and the French insurance company Groupama (Groupe des Assurances Mutuelles Agricoles). Hydra-2/MMARS2 carries the methanogens in experimental modules manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space, Friedrichshafen integrated in an-ISU designed and manufactured CubeLab and also carries a DOSIS radiation-measuring device from the German space agency, DLR.


Figure 5: Hydra-3/Pulse (left) and Hydra-1/Plant-Growth Experiment (right) undergoing ground tests in the ICE Cubes facility (image credit: (image credit: ICE Cubes/ISU)

Hydra-3/Pulse, also housed in an ISU CubeLab, is an artistic project that will bring together members of the public on Earth with the payload on the ISS to create an interactive art piece that will be activated during performances on the ground. At these, participants' pulse and oxygenation levels will be measured and transmitted to Pulse to activate a specially-designed ‘microgravity kaleidoscope' and lighting panel. Images from the kaleidoscope will be transmitted back to the ground and projected for the audience, so closing the Earth-space loop. On the outside of the kaleidoscope cylinder is a specially-written poem which reflects the themes of the artwork and which will also be transmitted back to Earth. Also included in the Pulse payload is RUSH, a technology demonstration payload for radiation tolerant electronics from Macquarie University of Sydney, Australia. Pulse is the work of Mexican artist and ISU alumnus Nahum, while the poem was written by ISU Hydra Project Coordinator Prof Chris Welch.

In November, Hydra-2 and Hydra-3 will be joined by another ISU payload, Hydra-1/Plant-Growth Experiment. After operations are complete, all three payloads will return to Earth with the SpaceX CRS-16 mission in December 2018 and then be returned to ISU for analysis.



Status of the ICE Cubes mission

• January 29, 2019: Getting a science experiment on the world's only floating outpost in Earth orbit is a costly and time-consuming endeavor. ICE Cubes is ESA's faster, lower cost answer to making science happen in space. ICE Cubes is a facility that houses modular experiments on the International Space Station. 18)


Figure 6: Floating ICE — an ICE Cubes commercial experiment cube on the ISS: The 10 x 10 x 10 cm cubes, like the one in this photo taken by Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, houses an experiment developed by the International Space University based in Strasbourg, France (image credit: ESA)

- Experiments are sent to the Space Station on regular cargo missions. Once in space, the cubes are plugged into the facility by an astronaut and voila, science can begin!

- A dedicated control center in Belgium allows researchers 24/7 access to their experiment data via secure remote login. The data coming from the Columbus laboratory can be monitored at any time of the day and customers can even send commands to the experiment cubes to change parameters or start a next step in the experiment.

- The ICE Cubes service is based on a partnership between Space Applications Services and ESA and is part of ESA's strategy to ensure access to weightless research in low Earth orbit.

- The ICE Cubes model is part of a growing commercial trend in space exploration. Missions to the Moon and beyond are being planned not only in cooperation with international space agencies but also with industry partners as the space share-economy develops. This more sustainable approach drives down the cost, allowing for more missions overall.

- 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. For more information visit the ICE Cubes website.

• July 13, 2018: Europe's new commercial research facility on the International Space Station, called ICE Cubes (International Commercial Experiments Service), is inaugurating its new service today with a special event in Belgium. With the first experiments installed, the service is ready to perform operations in orbit. 19)

- 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.

Figure 7: Horizons science – installing ICE Cubes. The ICE Cubes Facility provides commercial access to microgravity offering faster, easier and more affordable access to research in space. ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst installed the first experiment cubes in the facility that is housed in Europe's research laboratory Columbus, part of the International Space Station (video credit: ESA)


Figure 8: Framework features on the ISS: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst installed the first experiment cubes in the facility that is housed in Europe's research laboratory Columbus, part of the ISS. The ISU team is the first customer to run experiments in ICE Cubes. The plug-and-play cubes need only to be slotted into the facility and the data collection can begin (image credit: Space Applications Services)

- The ICE Cubes control center at Space Application Services in Sint-Stevens-Woluwe, Belgium (Brussels region) offers unique continuous access to experiments. From anywhere in the world a customer can login to their ICE Cube through an Internet connection. The data can be monitored at any time of the day and customers can even send commands to the experiment cubes to change parameters or start a next step in the experiment.

- The ICE Cubes service is based on a partnership between Space Applications Services and ESA and is part of ESA's human and robotic exploration strategy to ensure access to the weightless research possibilities in low Earth orbit.

- Hilde Stenuit, ICE Cubes project business manager at Space Applications Services says, "We have over thirty years of experience in space research and are very proud to offer this unprecedented remote access to space. We are looking forward to running all types of experiments for our customers."


Figure 9: Image of the ICE Cubes control center in Belgium (image credit: Space Applications Services)



FENIX propulsion system for CubeSats — will be tested on ICE Cubes in 2019

FENIX is a modular micropropulsion device designed to expand the mission profile of the CubeSat platform. Its independent solid rocket motors enable missions on higher orbits, multiple orbital planes in a single mission, lifetime extension, and deorbiting. Its baseline configuration includes four solid rocket motors installed along the vertical edges of a 1U CubeSat frame, so the volume within remains available for cylinder-shaped payloads like lenses. Configurations with a larger number of motors are also available. 20)

FENIX enables CubeSat operators to comply with international regulations even in case of missions to 700 km orbit or higher, making it the ultimate solution to prevent an accumulation of spent nanosatellites in orbit. In lower orbits, FENIX enables mission lifetime extension by boosting CubeSats' orbit before they hit Earth's atmosphere.

The Italian tech company D-Orbit developed the innovative FENIX micropropulsion device and submitted their entry to last year's Space Exploration Masters. The competition encourages ideas to solve some of the space industry's main challenges while fostering products and services with commercial potential. 21)

In the case of D-Orbit's FENIX propulsion system, the idea was both simple and small. The pen-sized booster prototype, is just 10 cm long and 2 cm wide – allowing small satellites to work smarter and explore farther. The 1U CubeSats are deployed directly into orbit from space. They currently have no propulsion system to change orbit or deorbit at the end of their missions. With the FENIX, CubeSats could be employed for longer missions farther out in space.

Each of the four boosters is packed with solid propellant that provides thrust which is triggered by a simple electrical ignition system. The boosters can be configured at each corner of the CubeSat or doubled up on either side. Thanks to their lightweight and compact size, they do not take up much instrument space.

With space exploration opening for business, technologies like Fenix have the potential to expand our horizons farther out in space. CubeSats can take on more sophisticated missions if they can maneuver in orbits – such as studying the Moon and asteroids from different angles.

In low Earth orbit, the boosters can deorbit the CubeSats at the end of their missions to help reduce space debris.

D-Orbit won a four-month ticket to test their prototype on the newly-installed ICE Cubes facility in the Columbus module of the International Space Station. The team will test the booster's safe ignition mechanism inside an ICE cube experiment unit, without firing the actual propulsion system, to ensure that it works and is safe under space conditions.

Sensors and cameras will record the sparks, triggered by an electrical impulse, and the team can observe the testing anytime, anywhere, thanks to ICE Cubes dedicated control center providing continuous remote access for users on ground. FENIX is set for launch to the Space Station by the end of next year.


Figure 10: Illustration of the FENIX micropropulsion system (image credit: D-Orbit)


1) "What is ICE Cubes?," Space Application Services, URL:


3) Hilde Stenuit, "International Commercial Experiments Service - Making access for space experiments fast, simple, attractive and affordable," 54th Plenary Meeting of the European Space Sciences Committee, DLR, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, 23 -24 November 2017, URL:


5) "First ICE Cubes experiments for International Space University (ISU) launched on SpaceX – 29/06/2018," Space Applications Services NV/SA, 29 June 2018, URL:

6) Bernhard Hufenbach, "Engaging the private sector in space exploration," ROOM The Space Journal, Issue No 2, December 2017, URL:

7) "New Space Station opportunity for university Students," ESA, 12 July 2018, URL:

8) "ICE Cubes Agreement with ESA 20/06/2017," ESA, 20 June 2017, URL:

9) "Ice Cubes – cool new commercial opportunity on the International Space Station," ESA, 20 June 2017, URL:

10) "Dragon delivers some ICE," ESA, 29 June 2018, URL:

11) "First ICE Cubes experiments for International Space University (ISU) launched on SpaceX," ISU, 29 June 2018, URL:

12) "ECOSTRESS Among Science Payloads on Next Space Station Mission," NASA/JPL, 12 June 2018, URL:

13) "SpaceX CRS-15 Dragon arrives at ISS with science/crew supply payloads," NASA Spaceflight, 2 July 2018, URL:

14) "ICE Cubes space research service open for business," ESA, 5 June 2018, URL:

15) "ICE Cubes experiment unit," ESA, 29 June 2018, URL:

16) "ICE Cubes in Columbus," ESA, 29 June 2018, URL:

17) "Hydras go to Space - Two ISU payloads launch to the International Space Station," ISU, 29 June 2018, URL:

18) "Floating ice -Human and robotic exploration image of the week," ESA, 29 January 2019, URL:

19) "Access your space experiment anywhere with ICE Cubes," ESA, 13 July 2018, URL:

20) "D-Orbit – FENIX: Small Propulsion Systems for Small Satellites," Space Exploration Masters, 2017, URL:

21) "FENIX," ESA, 25 July 2018, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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