European Modular Cultivation System, EMCS

Plant research is carried out on board the International Space Station using different research and technology demonstration platforms. The European Modular Cultivation System, EMCS, provided groundbreaking knowledge on plant biology through a number of successful experiments.

The EMCS after its installation in the EXPRESS rack 3A during Expedition 13. Credit: NASA.

A versatile platform for life science experiments

The European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS), was a research facility for performing life science experiments in space on board the International Space Station. Simplified, the facility harbored an incubator and two spinning rotors. The rotors carried exchangeable Experiment Containers (EC) housing the actual experiment in experiment-specific hardware. Sometimes referred to as a “mini greenhouse”, the EMCS was used extensively to study plant biology at different gravitational conditions in experiments led by both ESA and NASA.

The EMCS could facilitate multi-generation plant experiments, studies of how gravity effects seedling development and growth, studies of signal perception and transduction in plant tropisms, etc. Its centrifuges allowed simulation of for example Moon, Mars and Earth gravities, and made possible studies of the gravity threshold on biological systems.

An experiment container of the EMCS with an Arabidopsis plant. Credit: CIRiS.

The EMCS was also designed for experiments with insects or amphibians, as well as studies with cell and tissue cultures.

The EMCS Facility was launched to the International Space Station on ULF 1.1 in 2006 and installed in EXPRESS Rack 3, for the first few years in the Destiny module, later in the Columbus module.

The EMCS was decommissioned in 2018.

  • ESA facility developed by Astrium DS during the late 1990s and early 2000
  • Experiment capacity: 8 Experiment Containers (EC) of 60x60x160 mm, 4 on each of the two EMCS rotors
  • Temperature: 18-40˚C
  • Illumination: LED panels above each of the 8 EC positions, controlled individually and set to either on in full intensity (75 W/m2 PAR), off, on in reduced mode (2/3 of full intensity) or infrared light; automated on/off day/night cycle
  • Gravity: µg to 2 x g; all settings between min and max available; individual settings for the two rotors; adjustable throughout the experiment, adapting to the scientific goals of an experiment
  • Atmosphere: Atmosphere composition controlled (N2, O2, CO2) and ethylene gas removed
  • Humidity: Dry mode (30 % rH), or automatic control of rH between 50 and 80 %
  • Video: Adjustable settings for resolution, field of view, zoom, NTSC standard, etc; video recordings downlinked to ground and forwarded to the scientists
  • Still images: Real time still images downloaded based on need (e.g. every 30 minutes during critical phases)
  • Water: Internal water tank (230 ml per rotor) with distilled water, or provided by experiment-specific ECs
NASA Astronaut Tom Marshburn operates the EMCS. Experiment containers are replaced to start the third run of the Seedling Growth experiment, studying effects of microgravity on the growth of plants. Credit: NASA.