From Stuttgart to the ISS – the arduous journey of a student experiment
The 'horizons' mission is very exciting – not just for us, the members of the DLR mission team. It is also a fascinating time for student groups from the universities of Stuttgart, Duisburg-Essen and Frankfurt – all of them winners of the ‘High-flyers’ competition, which was organised by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft; DPG) in 2016.##markend##
A jury of experts, which included the former German astronaut Gerhard Thiele, selected them as the best entries. The three teams were allowed to send their own experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). What makes the prize special is that they have designed and built the experiments themselves. To top it all, four members of each team are given the opportunity to witness the lift-off of their experiments live at the launch site.
The students have been working on the completion of their experiments alongside their regular studies since spring 2017. An initial prototype was dispatched to the United States for testing in autumn 2017. The results proved helpful in preparing the final design and completing the hardware for its voyage through space. Among the particular challenges was that each experiment had to fit into a box measuring just 10×10×15 centimetres, with just one standard USB port connecting it to the ISS. This taught the students how to build miniaturised and particularly energy-efficient systems. But in addition to the technical aspects, there was plenty to learn about the organisational and logistical procedures as well. For instance, shipping lithium-ion batteries by air across the ‘Big Pond’ can be a fairly tricky affair.
The 'PAPELL' (Pump Application using Pulsed Electromagnets for Liquid Relocation) team from Stuttgart was the first to deliver its experiment to Houston (More about the experiment). After multiple postponements, it was finally scheduled to take off for the ISS on board the OA-9 flight on 20 May 2018. Barely containing their excitement, the team members planned their trip to the launch site on Wallops Island, Virginia. In addition to the four sponsored team members, another 16 students were so determined to witness the take-off live that most of them paid for the journey themselves. I had the honour of accompanying them to the United States as head of the 'High-flyers' programme. But there was a cruel twist of fate just as the students were getting ready to set off. Just four days before the launch, NASA decided against sending the experiment to the ISS, as there were still unanswered questions about the batteries – a never-ending issue. The team was bitterly disappointed, of course. It was too late to cancel the flights, so they decided to go anyway. Aside from the thrilling night-time launch of the Antares rocket – which finally took place on 21 May – the students enjoyed a meet-and-greet with the new NASA administrator and a pleasant get-together with the former astronaut Rick Mastracchio. In addition, the lead ISS manager at NASA visited the group's hotel later in the evening to discuss the decision and to share some important insights. Visits to a few fascinating space museums in the US capital rounded off the trip. So although the group departed a few days later without their experiment reaching the ISS, they were nevertheless pleased to have enjoyed a number of fascinating experiences.
Since then, the technical problems with the PAPELL experiment have been solved and it is scheduled to take off from Florida tomorrow, 29 June, on board SpaceX flight CRS-15 (SpX-15), together with the second 'High-flyers' experiment, ARISE. Joining the ARISE team from Duisburg-Essen will be a smaller delegation from Stuttgart that will again travel to the United States to witness the take-off.
My next article will tell you whether the experiments arrived safe and sound, and what they will set out to achieve on board the ISS.