A new 'cyber colleague' is on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) to join German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst. CIMON and six other experiments for the 'horizons' mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, 29 June 2018 at 11:42 CEST (05:42 local time) on board a US Dragon capsule with a Falcon 9 launcher. In addition to the astronaut assistance system, a new Earth observation instrument, experiments for cell and materials research and two student experiments will reach the ISS on 2 July.
CIMON – a new 'cyber colleague' on the ISS
Alexander Gerst and the rest of the crew on the ISS will soon welcome a new colleague. The Crew Interactive MObile companioN (CIMON) is an innovative assistance system for astronauts, which is equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) and can act autonomously. Not only can CIMON 'see', 'hear', 'understand' and 'speak' with its cameras, sensors, microphones and processors, but it can also present and explain a wide range of information, as well as experiment and repair instructions. CIMON can even perform simple routine tasks such as documenting experiments or searching for objects.
Since the assistant is voice-controlled, the astronauts can perform tasks using both their hands while accessing the services of the 'cyber colleague'. Twelve internal fans provide mobility in all directions, allowing CIMON to move freely and perform rotational movements such as nodding or shaking its head. The system will be used and tested for the first time during the 'horizons' mission. In the long term, however, CIMON and its successors will not only be able to assist astronauts in space, but also in the areas of medicine and nursing, education and human-machine interaction. CIMON was built by Airbus under a contract awarded by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Space Administration in Bonn with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie; BMWi) for use in the European Columbus laboratory on the ISS. At the heart of the CIMON AI language comprehension system is IBM's Watson technology.
DESIS – keeping an eye on Earth’s ecosystems
The DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS) instrument, a spectrometer built for environmental monitoring and precision farming, will send a wide range of data to Earth from the ISS. This data will allow scientists to observe changes in Earth's surface ecosystems. Based on the information obtained, they can assess the status of forests or agricultural areas and make yield forecasts. Another purpose of DESIS is to safeguard and improve global food production. DESIS will be the first instrument on board the ISS to be integrated into the Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES) platform. The 235 DESIS sensor channels will focus particularly on light in the visible and near-infrared portions of the spectrum, in the wavelength range of 400 to 1000 nanometres. The resolution of the instrument is 30 metres per pixel. Unlike conventional instruments, the special DESIS technology also allows observation of Earth's surface from different angles. DESIS was developed jointly by the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems and the US company Teledyne Brown Engineering.
The 235 DESIS sensor channels will focus particularly on light in the visible and near-infrared portions of the spectrum, in the wavelength range of 400 to 1000 nanometres. The resolution of the instrument is 30 metres per pixel. Unlike conventional instruments, the special DESIS technology also allows observation of Earth's surface from different angles. DESIS was developed jointly by the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems and the US company Teledyne Brown Engineering.
Living cells in 3D – the FLUMIAS experiment
For the FLUMIAS experiment, a fluorescence microscope is being launched to the ISS that is capable of producing high-resolution images of living cells. This will enable such long-term observations to be carried out in space for the first time. During the 'horizons' mission, the cytoskeleton and nuclei of living macrophages – that is, human immune cells, will be examined. Scientists from the University of Magdeburg will use the live cell imaging method, in which special dyes or fluorescent proteins are used to illuminate particular cell structures.
The extremely precise FLUMIAS images also allow researchers to create 3D models or short videos of the observations. The aim of the research is to gain new insights in the fields of cell and molecular biology as well as biomedicine. In the long term, these should help to keep astronauts healthy during their stay in space, but also be used more generally in therapy for neurodegenerative and immune diseases or cancer.
Gene Control Prime – gene regulation of immune cells
What influence does gravity have on gene regulation and the functioning of immune cells? This is the question that will be answered by the Gene Control Prime experiment, which will investigate the genetic causes of immunodeficiency in microgravity. Two of the focal points of the experiment are the activation and functioning of the phagocytes of the immune system, macrophages. On the ISS, the scientists want to investigate the effect of space conditions on the human immune system and bone metabolism. The study of the molecular mechanisms regulating the immune system is not only relevant to future long-term astronaut missions, but in addition the results should help to understand the general causes of immunodeficiency and assist with the development of new therapies. On board SpaceX CRS-15, there are 24 experiment containers, each the size of a smartphone.
CompGran investigates the dynamics of granular materials
Matter that is made up of granules, such as sand or grain, can behave very differently depending on the circumstances. If the material is compacted, it behaves like a solid. For example, compacted layers of sand are used as a substrate in road construction. If it is not compressed, the matter can be poured like a liquid. The dynamics and physical properties of granular matter are highly complex. They are easier to investigate if the processes are not affected by gravity.
For the CompGran experiment, Airbus Defence and Space has developed a total of four experimental cells on behalf of the DLR Space Administration. The volume of these experimental cells can be changed by a piston to vary the compactness of the granules. CompGran is being installed in the Fluid Science Laboratory of the Columbus module as part of the new ESA Soft Matter Dynamics experimental facility. The researchers are hoping that the experiments will provide new insights into the dynamics of granular matter, which in the medium to long term will contribute to the improvement of industrial processes involving bulk solids such as coal dust, flour or grain.
Pumps and planets – student experiments PAPELL and ARISE
Also on board SpaceX CRS-15 are two experiments from the 'High-flyers' competition organised by DLR and the German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft; DPG). Of the numerous ideas that students from German universities submitted for ISS experiment, an expert jury selected the best three. In the 'Pump Application using Pulsed Electromagnets for Liquid Relocation' (PAPELL) experiment, students from the University of Stuttgart are investigating a novel pump technology. This moves a ferrofluid, a colloidal liquid with very small magnetic particles held in suspension, with the help of electromagnets. This pump has no moving mechanical components. This means that wear, susceptibility to errors and noise are minimised. In two sub-experiments, the team will investigate the transport of the liquid and small solid globules in it. There are numerous applications for such a pump in space, such as for the fuel supply to the engines of launchers and spacecraft.
The ARISE experiment, designed by students from the University of Duisburg-Essen, deals with the formation of planets. According to current theory, in the early phase of planet formation, micrometre-sized particles collide, adhere to one another and thus form larger aggregates. If these grow to a size of several millimetres, they would theoretically have to bounce off each other like billiard balls. So how can it be that planets still emerge? ARISE examines the electrostatic charge of particles. Millimetre-sized glass beads are placed in a transparent container and shaken so that they collide against each other. The resulting electrostatic charges and their interactions are monitored by cameras. The scientists suspect that the alternating forces will lead to an overall attractive force that helps glass beads to accumulate and form agglomerations. This theory will be tested in the long-term microgravity on the ISS.