Space research, courtesy of schoolchildren: this and other experiments for the horizons mission of the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst are now en route to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiments are being carried by a Cygnus transporter on board an Antares rocket that took off from Wallops Island, Virginia (United States) at 10:44 CEST (04:44 local time) on 21 May 2018, bound for the ISS, where it will dock on 24 May. Gerst is due to take off for his horizons mission on the ISS on 6 June 2018, on board a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrom in Kazakhstan. He will be stationed on the ISS until 13 December. "Alexander Gerst has a very special role in this mission," says Volker Schmid, horizons Mission Manager at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). "He will be the first German and second European to command the space station and its crew, a role that he will assume from early October until mid-December."
Space insights, courtesy of a mouse
In Germany, the TV show 'Sendung mit der Maus' explains things to children in a playful way, featuring a cartoon mouse as the main character. Alexander Gerst and scientists at DLR appealed to young fans of the programme by asking children to submit ideas for a research experiment on board the International Space Station. Of the many exciting suggestions put forward, an experiment will now be carried out to find out whether flying a mini air-powered rocket in the ISS is possible. In order to determine whether such an experiment could be carried out in space, it was first tested at DLR.
For materials, they only used things readily available on the ISS – as such, the 'rocket' comprises one of the plastic syringes that the astronauts use for experiments. This is filled with a crushed effervescent tablet and water, so that it forms bubbles and builds up gas pressure. Once this pressure is sufficiently high, the rocket is able to launch. In order for this mini bullet to fly in a controlled manner, a small plastic tube is attached to the syringe, with a piece of string fed through it. The rocket can then glide safely through the space station along the taut string. In another mini experiment, Alexander Gerst will test whether it is possible to propel oneself forward in microgravity conditions using swimming strokes.
A planet simulator on the ISS
The MagVector/MFX experiment investigates the interactions of Earth's magnetic field using a variable electrical conductor. The system was installed in the Columbus Laboratory as part of the Blue Dot mission in 2014, and has since successfully completed over 2000 operating hours. Now, two new sensor boxes – each holding 16 sensors – will be installed as part of the MFX-2 experiment. Eleven new material samples, such as pieces of meteorites found in various locations across Europe, will be inserted into these boxes. This will make MagVector the first planetary simulator on the ISS. Scientists will be able to use it to simulate celestial bodies and what happens to them when flying through the solar magnetic field. The samples will be monitored by scientists from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof.
A boost for worldwide radio communications – the MacronISSta experiment
The MarconISSta experiment, devised by scientists at the Aerospace Institute (Institut für Luft- und Raumfahrt) at the Technical University of Berlin, analyses the capacity of radio frequencies worldwide. These frequencies are needed to control satellites and download their data. Today, some frequency bands are so heavily used that radio traffic is increasingly disrupted. To carry out measurements, the experiment uses the ARISS antenna on the space station, which was installed in October 2007.
The data will be fed back to the ground station at the TU Berlin at regular intervals, allowing detailed analysis of radio frequency bands to be carried out swiftly and using the latest data for the first time. Not only will this enable the scientists to determine which frequencies are currently being used, but it will also allow them to identify potential sources of interference. As a result, the likelihood of radio interference will be easier to predict, while unused frequency bands can be integrated more effectively. Going forward, this will enable better coordination of satellite missions, while also improving radio communications on Earth, for instance in air and sea transport.
Wireless communication on space missions
How can wireless communication for space missions be improved? Scientists are looking to answer this question through the Wireless Compose (Wireless Communication and Positioning Experiment) technology experiment. The network consists of five fixed sensors, one base station and two mobile sensors for motion tracking. The system will be tested in the Columbus module of the ISS from the beginning of June. During the test phase, a reference system will be operated on Earth in the DLR EDEN ISS greenhouse, an experimental laboratory in Antarctica. The system was developed and built by the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen.
EML – Better materials and components for industry
The cargo also includes an important technical upgrade for the electromagnetic levitator (EML. It was successfully installed and commissioned by Alexander Gerst in the European Columbus module in October 2014 during his Blue Dot mission. The EML is used to make metallic samples float through electromagnetic levitation, so that they do not come into contact with other materials, allowing their properties to be investigated. This avoids contamination caused by melting, which would occur in a laboratory on Earth, as the sample would come into contact with its container. These unique conditions allow high-precision studies of the liquid state and solidification of metals.
The upgrade that is now being sent to the ISS includes replacement electronic components and a software update, and should allow the EML’s high-speed camera to be used more efficiently, thus enabling up to five times more experiments to be carried out within a given amount of time. As such, the scientists hope to be able to answer even more questions about the basic physical properties of metal alloys. In the long term, such findings should lead to the production of lighter and more stable materials for industry, perhaps even with completely new properties.