The first experiments to be conducted as part of the horizons mission with German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst are on their way to the International Space Station (ISS). At 22:30 CEST on 2 April 2018 (16:30 local time), a Falcon 9 launcher with a US Dragon capsule lifted off from the Cape Canaveral spaceport in Florida, bound for the ISS. The supply craft will dock there on 4 April. Together with supplies such as food and clothing for the astronauts, the capsule also contains equipment to be used in research, including the Myotones, MetabolicSpace, SPACETEX-2 and ASIM experiments, and a time capsule created by the German Aerospace Centre (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). Gerst is due to lift off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on 6 June 2018, on board a Soyuz spacecraft bound for the ISS, where he will live and work for 187 days, until 10 December. On this, his second long-term mission, he will not only conduct an array of experiments, but from August will also serve as the first German commander of the space station.
The Myotones experiment investigates tired muscles in space
Myotones is one of the medical experiments in which Alexander Gerst will participate. Scientists from the Charité clinic in Berlin and the University of Southampton are looking to examine the biomechanical properties of resting human muscle. In order to prevent muscle and bone atrophy in space, astronauts train for at least one and a half hours every day. But how effective is this training, and how does it affect the biomechanical characteristics of an individual's musculature? To address this question, the astronauts involved in the horizons mission will use MyotonPRO, a device that already exists on Earth and has now been optimised for use in space. During the experiment, the roughly smartphone-sized device delivers a short pressure pulse to the body and calculates information about the elasticity, stiffness and residual stress (tone) of the resting muscle based on the reaction of the tissue to this pulse. The results of the experiment will be used not only for astronauts during space travel, but will also be used for rehabilitation following bone fractures.
MetabolicSpace – health checks without messy cables
The MetabolicSpace experiment, created by the Institute of Aerospace Engineering at TU Dresden, centres around a wearable analytical system for bodily and metabolic functions. It is aimed at significantly facilitating and improving the monitoring and evaluation of astronaut training on the ISS. Previous measuring systems could not be worn on the individual’s body, so the cables and tubes would hamper the astronauts while they were trying to train. Moreover, they could only be used for a short space of time. MetabolicSpace, on the other hand, comes in the form of a belt equipped with electronic measurement functions and sensors, and can be worn under clothing while training. The data are then sent to a laptop, where they can be evaluated. Along with the respiratory gases, the sensors also capture the wearer's respiratory rate, heartbeat and body temperature. MetabolicSpace is suited to monitoring the health and physical fitness of astronauts, but in future it could also be used for space tourism or to diagnose patients and athletes.
A better way to break a sweat – SPACETEX-2 aids training
The SPACETEX-2 experiment is also aimed at improving the comfort of astronauts during training. This functional clothing, designed specifically for use on board the ISS, has been developed by a research alliance made up of the Hohenstein Institute, the Charité clinic in Berlin and DLR. When an astronaut carries out his or her training routines, the heat exchange process on his or her body's surface is altered by microgravity. Heat builds up very quickly, and the astronaut's body temperature rises to over 39 degrees Celsius. In order to prevent damage to health, it is therefore vital to optimise heat exchange through the use of clothing made of new, high-tech materials. The predecessor model to this experiment, SPACETEX, was already successfully used as part of the Blue Dot mission in 2014. The textiles used in SPACETEX-2 were improved on the basis of the results from the previous model, and now have to undergo testing under space conditions.
Thunderstorms in Earth's upper atmosphere
For many years, scientists have been observing the phenomenon of thunderstorms that take place in Earth's upper atmosphere. The electrical discharges in the uppermost layers, in particular, are difficult to research from the ground. The European Space Agency's Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) experiment, mounted on the lower external platform of the Columbus laboratory, is intended to help with this. From there, ASIM is set to observe the interplay between gamma radiation, lightning and electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere for at least two years. The long-term objective is to gain new insights into the impact of these events on Earth’s atmosphere and climate.
From the present into the future – the time capsule
Together with the experiment supplies, the Dragon capsule also has the ESA/DLR PR package on board. Among other things, this contains a time capsule, in the form of an aluminium sphere made by trainees at DLR and containing the wishes and visions of the future sent by schoolchildren from all over Germany. They submitted their suggestions to the DLR as part of the 'Project_4D' campaign run by the DLR_next youth portal and the Stiftung Lesen (German Reading Foundation). The storage media inside the capsule also include 'Slices of Life' – photographs sent in by DLR's social media followers and reflecting their daily lives. Alexander Gerst will seal the time capsule on the ISS and hand it over to the Haus der Geschichte (House of History) Foundation in Bonn on his return, where it will be kept for 50 years before being reopened in 2068.
The launch of the Falcon 9 marks the start of a series of deliveries of experimental equipment and materials for the horizons mission. A Cygnus spacecraft will lift off on 20 May 2018 from Wallops Island, bound for the ISS. Its cargo will include the Cold Atoms Lab (CAL), MarconISSta and MFX-2 experiments, together with an EML high-speed camera. The launch of another Falcon 9 rocket carrying new supplies and experimental equipment is planned for 28 June from Cape Canaveral.