The German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst has been orbiting Earth on board the International Space Station (ISS) since 8 June 2018. Gerst, the NASA astronaut Serena Maria Auñón-Chancellor and the Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev have all sorts of scientific experiments to conduct. Now that they are halfway through their mission, ISS expedition crew 56-57 has already completed 37 of the German experiments, and are thus well over 90 percent of the way through. The ISS offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to study scientific questions in microgravity and under space conditions. Scientists and engineers from across the globe use the scientific laboratory 400 kilometres above the Earth for their research topics, especially in the fields of the environment, health and climate change. In the second part of his six-month mission, from 3 October 2018, Alexander Gerst will assume command of the ISS.
"The horizons mission has been a huge success, and we are only halfway through. Almost all of the German experiments have already been conducted or are currently taking place on board the Space Station. This is a superb achievement by German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst and his team of US and Russian colleagues. However, none of this would have been possible without the team on the ground. Scientists, engineers and project managers from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) and ESA have all helped to make this a success story," says Walther Pelzer, DLR Executive Board Member for the Space Administration, who is responsible for the German contributions to the horizons mission and ESA.
Before scientific experiments can be carried out in space, they are developed and prepared in long test phases on Earth. On board the ISS, the astronauts conduct the experiments that they have trained for to a tight schedule, requiring a highly committed approach.
Hansjörg Dittus, DLR Executive Board Member for Space Research and Technology, sums up the mission so far: "The ISS is a unique research laboratory that provides us with important data and insights into current research topics and global challenges. I am delighted that the astronauts in space and the ground teams have done such a great job in the first half of the mission. Many thanks are due to Alexander Gerst, the 56–57 mission team, the German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) at the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen, and the teams from NASA and ESA."
ICARUS: learning more about our planet from animal behaviour
ICARUS monitors animal migrations across the globe. Tiny transmitters attached to small animals collect information about migratory behaviour and send it to an antenna system that was mounted on the Zvezda module by the cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Oleg Artemyev during a spacewalk on 15 August 2018. The incoming data is processed by an on-board computer (OBC-I), which was installed in the same module in late April and has since been tested. "Once such data are stored in a database, they can help us to protect animals, gain a better understanding of our climate and the spread of diseases, and promote more sustainable agriculture," says ICARUS Project Leader Johannes Weppler, who works for the DLR Space Administration.
On Earth, the first 100 blackbirds have already been fitted with the little transmitters, which weigh only five grams. In the future, these transmitters will weigh just one gram – a pioneering feat of German-made miniaturisation. The first data from these animals will then be available relatively quickly, even before more animals and other species are fitted with the technology. The objective is to involve several thousand animals in the first two years of operation, with a view to potentially incorporating 10,000 or more per year. Several thousand researchers will benefit from the ICARUS data in future, as they can use it to explore natural processes such as climate change, anthropogenic impacts to the environment and changes in coastal zones.
DESIS: hyperspectral Earth observation instrument transmits its first images
The DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS) is the world's most powerful hyperspectral Earth observation instrument in space. After being launched in late June, the spectrometer was unpacked by Gerst at the end of August and positioned in the airlock. The instrument, which is about the size of a refrigerator, was then installed on the MUSES (Multiple User System for Earth Sensing) platform on the exterior of the ISS in late August using a robotic arm controlled by the NASA control centre in Houston. DESIS is a hyperspectral sensor system capable of capturing image data with 235 closely spaced channels ranging from the visual to the infrared spectrum (between 400 and 1000 nanometres), with a ground surface resolution of 30 metres, all from the 400 kilometre ISS orbit. Such data enable scientists to perceive changes in the ecosystems of Earth’s surface. They are able to use this information to gauge the health condition of forests or agricultural areas, thus enabling them to make yield forecasts.
"We are very pleased that the launch, installation and activation of DESIS have gone smoothly so far. After all, this is the first time that the platform concept has been put into practice on the ISS. Now, one month earlier than expected, we can receive the first images and analyse them," says Uwe Knodt, Overall DESIS Project Manager. The hyperspectral sensor is a joint project between DLR and the US company Teledyne Brown Engineering (TBE), which also owns the MUSES (Multiple User System for Earth Sensing) Earth observation platform. As part of this collaboration, DESIS is set to provide DLR with data for scientific purposes, while TBE will take on the commercial distribution of the hyperspectral data. The first images will be presented at a press conference at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) on 2 October 2018 in Bremen.
Great teamwork between Gerst and the METERON-SUPVIS robot Justin
Intelligent robots are playing an increasingly important role in space travel, in particular in exploratory tasks. Alexander Gerst was able to demonstrate that robots can also assist humans in unexpected situations in the successful experiment METERON SUPVIS Justin on 17 August 2018. This capability of smart robots is also set to play a major role in future exploration of the Solar System and the construction of bases on the Moon or Mars. The astronaut was able to control the DLR robot Justin remotely from the ISS, using a tablet PC. Justin was on Earth, in the Mars laboratory of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. To ensure that the scenario was as realistic as possible, Alexander Gerst and the robot were left on their own and carried out their task largely without contact with the ground crew. The astronaut was able to interact intuitively with his robot colleague and successfully carry out complex tasks even in unpredictable situations. Among other things, Gerst successfully changed a burning component during the two-hour experiment.
"With these experiments, we are looking to demonstrate that robotic co-workers could be deployed on distant planets or the Moon. They could help us to create colonies in space. We are further developing our operating concepts and technology to make the control mechanism as intuitive as possible," explains Principal Investigator (PI) Dr Neal Y Lii of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. The METERON SUPVIS-Justin experiment is a collaborative enterprise between DLR and the European Space Agency (ESA). Support was provided by the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Danish Aerospace and the Columbus Control Centre, part of the German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) at DLR's site in Oberpfaffenhofen
FLUMIAS – looking at cells 'live'
FLUMIAS is an innovative 3D fluorescence microscope and technology demonstrator for live cell imaging in space. “FLUMIAS allows processes in living cells to be observed under microgravity conditions for the first time, with changes made clearly visible right away. The microscope gives scientists completely new insights into human tissue, cell culture, microorganisms and plants, representing technological progress that should help us to detect and address the causes of global health problems on Earth,” explains FLUMIAS Project Leader Catharina Carstens at the DLR Space Administration.
Loaded with human macrophages, FLUMIAS arrived at the ISS on 2 July 2018 on the Dragon capsule carried by the SpaceX CRS-15. After being installed in the TangoLab-2 in the US Destiny module of the ISS on 3 July 2018, the microscope was left running up there for 10 days, producing a total of 1.2 terabytes of data for fixed (i.e. chemically stabilised) and living cells over that time. After four weeks, FLUMIAS was loaded back onto the Dragon capsule and reached Earth in early August. Houston then sent the microscope back to Airbus in Friedrichshafen. The large quantities of data are currently being processed by the microscope manufacturer TILL I.D. and analysed by scientists at the University of Magdeburg. This successful demonstration of the technology has paved the way for a larger fluorescence microscope with many more features and a centrifuge that will soon take up its place on board the ISS, if all goes to plan.
Myotones – muscle tone measurements in microgravity conditions
The SpaceX CRS-14 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on 2 April 2018 marked the arrival of a very special device. “For the purposes of the Myotones experiment, MyotonPRO monitors the basic biomechanical properties of the musculoskeletal system of astronauts in space for the very first time. As a smartphone-sized wearable device, it can study changes caused by the lack of gravity to the musculature of astronauts on board the ISS in a simple and non-invasive way,” explains Myotones Project Leader Christian Rogon at DLR Space Administration. MyotonPRO measures the passive characteristics of near-surface skeletal muscle in the same way that a doctor would, by feeling for areas of tension and hardening in the muscles when relaxed. It applies a short mechanical impulse to the skin’s surface and then measures the vibration of the underlying muscle digitally.
The data provide precise information about the elasticity, rigidity and tone of the examined muscle at rest. On 19 June 2018, Alexander Gerst became the first astronaut to determine his muscle status objectively, quickly and easily in space. The German ESA astronauts continued with the study on 6 July 2018, when he was subject to muscle measurements, including blood sampling and an ultrasound examination. Further measurements will be carried out on Gerst on 29 October and 5 December 2018. After that, MyotonPRO will remain on board the ISS, allowing subsequent astronauts to use it to take measurements. On Earth, the Myotones findings are used to improve rehabilitation and training programmes as measures to counter bone and muscular atrophy, as well as assessing the success of training in fitness regimes and competitive sport.
A successful upgrade for EML, one of the largest and most challenging experimental facilities on the ISS
In early September, the astronaut Andrew Feustel worked for a total of five hours to install a new video control electronics system for the electromagnetic levitator (EML) in the Columbus Laboratory. EML is a facility for important fundamental experiments in materials physics and is able to investigate the properties of metal and alloy melts, such as viscosity and surface tension, in microgravity conditions. For the upgrade, the astronaut installed an updated electronics system for the high-speed camera. The large amounts of data required to record fast processes in floating, liquid metal samples can be loaded about 10 times faster onto the hard drive of the control and data electronics thanks to this hardware and software upgrade.
Since the update, Julianna Schmitz of the DLR Institute of Material Physics in Space has been able to work much more efficiently during her nocturnal experiments. The EML experiments are controlled from Earth and conducted at night, because they are so sensitive that they must be carried out while the astronauts are resting. As the experiment supervisor, Schmitz works with her team at the DLR Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) to send commands to the ISS. "Following a short planning phase, we are now able to start the next series of tests. Now we only have idle times if there is no reception between the ground station and the ISS, in the case of ‘loss of signal’ phases," says Schmitz, describing the benefits of the upgrade. The development and installation of the EML facility were commissioned and funded on behalf of the DLR Space Administration and ESA. The DLR Institute of Material Physics in Space is carrying out the experiments in conjunction with the MUSC, while those involved in the experiments include the institute itself, the ACCESS Institute in Aachen, the IFW in Dresden and the universities of Göttingen, Ulm and Jena.
Cold Atoms Lab – ice-cold is not cold enough
The Cold Atoms Lab (CAL) is a very special facility on board the International Space Station (ISS). "In the Cold Atoms Lab, scientists can observe ultra-cold atom clouds made up of several thousand atoms in microgravity conditions. After all, ice-cold simply is not cold enough in quantum physics. Only at close to absolute zero, at –273.15 degrees Celsius, do we have the right conditions to trigger a quantum tsunami, known as a Bose–Einstein condensate (BEC)," explains Rainer Forke, CAL Project Leader at the Space Administration. The smallest pieces of matter – such as atoms and molecules – lead a mysterious double life here, behaving on the one hand like a particle and on the other like an electromagnetic wave. Similarly to what happens in the ocean, they continue to expand as the temperature drops, until they are eventually overlapping one another. Thousands of individual waves of matter like this form a single, continuous quantum tsunami – a BEC.
As the individual atoms in this giant wave oscillate to a certain pulse and thus behave like a single giant atom, this creates a macroscopic, millimetre-sized quantum system. This system is precisely what the Cold Atoms Lab is investigating on the ISS. Only here do microgravity conditions exist that are capable of maintaining such a quantum system for long enough. The facility was a work in progress for a long time before it finally made it into space. It was developed between 2012 and 2018 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on behalf of NASA before it embarked on its journey to the ISS on 21 May 2018 on board the Cygnus OA-9 space shuttle. Three days later, the CAL arrived and was installed in an express rack in the US Destiny module. Calibration was only completed in late August 2018, allowing experiments run by various scientists, including teams from Germany, to begin in September. Technological developments on Earth such as the global transmission of frequencies, time measurement and navigation, and the mapping of mineral resources can be improved with the CAL.