11. November 2019

Plas­ma crys­tal re­search on the ISS

PK-4 experiment – cosmonaut Alexander Skvorzow
Cos­mo­naut Alexan­der Skvor­zow dur­ing the PK-4 ex­per­i­ments
Image 1/5, Credit: ESA/ROSKOSMOS

Cosmonaut Alexander Skvorzow during the PK-4 experiments

The ex­pe­ri­enced cos­mo­naut Alexan­der Skvor­zow is car­ry­ing out a new se­ries of PK-4-ex­per­i­ments from 10 to 16 Novem­ber 2019. The PK-4 plas­ma crys­tal lab­o­ra­to­ry is op­er­at­ed by the DLR In­sti­tute of Ma­te­ri­als Physics in Space and in­stalled in the Eu­ro­pean Colum­bus mod­ule on the ISS.
ISS and Columbus module in front of Earth
ISS and Colum­bus mod­ule in front of Earth
Image 2/5, Credit: ESA/NASA.

ISS and Columbus module in front of Earth

The In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS) in or­bit above Earth's night side. The il­lu­mi­nat­ed part of the Earth ap­pears in blue on the right-hand side of the im­age. In the cen­tre of the im­age, the Eu­ro­pean Colum­bus lab­o­ra­to­ry can be seen as a cylin­der; it was in­stalled on the ISS in Febru­ary 2008.
PK-4 experiment – particle distribution in the plasma chamber
PK-4 ex­per­i­ment – par­ti­cle dis­tri­bu­tion in the plas­ma cham­ber
Image 3/5, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

PK-4 experiment – particle distribution in the plasma chamber

The im­age shows a string liq­uid from the sev­enth PK-4 cam­paign, con­duct­ed on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion in Ju­ly 2019. The im­age on the left shows the orig­i­nal state of a mi­cropar­ti­cle dis­tri­bu­tion in the plas­ma cham­ber. One plane is il­lu­mi­nat­ed with a laser. The im­age on the right shows a dis­tri­bu­tion per­pen­dic­u­lar to the first, gen­er­at­ed by the move­ment of the laser across the en­tire par­ti­cle cloud (to­mog­ra­phy).
PK-4 evaluation – crystalline structure of plasma
PK-4 eval­u­a­tion – crys­talline struc­ture of plas­ma
Image 4/5, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

PK-4 evaluation – crystalline structure of plasma

Eval­u­a­tion of a three-di­men­sion­al dis­tri­bu­tion func­tion dur­ing the 7th PK-4 cam­paign, con­duct­ed on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion in Ju­ly 2019. The struc­ture fac­tor clear­ly shows the hon­ey­comb-shaped, and there­fore, crys­talline struc­ture of the over­all par­ti­cle cloud.
Plasma crystal laboratory PK-4
Plas­ma crys­tal lab­o­ra­to­ry PK-4
Image 5/5, Credit: MPE

Plasma crystal laboratory PK-4

The PK-4 plas­ma crys­tal lab­o­ra­to­ry is de­signed to in­ves­ti­gate the fun­da­men­tal phys­i­cal prop­er­ties of com­plex, three-di­men­sion­al plas­mas.
  • Plasma research on the ISS – Cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov will be carrying out a new series of experiments from 10 to 16 November 2019
  • Important knowledge for tomorrow – the plasma crystal laboratory PK-4 provides insights into fundamental physical processes
  • Plasma is ionised gas and is considered to be the fourth state of matter in addition to solids, liquids and gases. Complex plasmas are formed when dust particles are present in the neutral gas

More plasma research is being conducted on the International Space Station (ISS). From 10 to 16 November 2019, the Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov will be carrying out a new series of experiments with the PK-4 plasma crystal laboratory. Under the direction of scientists from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), Skvortsov will record how microparticles move through a neon plasma in microgravity, forming structures and thus providing insights into basic physical processes.

The scientists are following the experiments with interest from the CADMOS control centre in Toulouse, France. The cosmonaut's most important task is to start the measurements at the correct moment, by sending the microparticles through the ionised gas and capturing the movements of the 'complex plasmas' on the monitor. Skvortsov already has a certain amount of practical experience, as he is currently completing his third long-term stay on board the ISS. During his first mission, in 2010, he carried out plasma crystal experiments with the predecessor laboratory, PK-3 Plus, as part of a German-Russian collaboration. The current PK-4 laboratory has been installed in the European Columbus module on the ISS and, as a multipurpose multi-user facility, offers a wide range of possibilities for plasma research under microgravity conditions.

The main objective of the DLR Complex Plasmas Research Group is to acquire knowledge that will appear in the textbooks of the future. Plasma crystal experiments reveal the dynamics of liquids and solids as a model system. This fundamental research is also important for understanding complex plasmas, which have been found to be a distinct physical state of soft matter – through experiments conducted in space. There are also naturally-occurring complex plasmas, known as 'dusty plasmas'. These can be found in lightning that occurs during volcanic eruptions, for example, and can be artificially generated in the laboratory. This provides fundamental knowledge that may be important for fusion plasmas, and also for exploration missions to the Moon or Mars.

Physics research in microgravity is one of the key topics at the DLR Institute of Materials Physics in Space, which is based in Cologne. The Institute conducts various experiments relating to materials research in metals, alloys and soft matter – in colloidal physics, granular matter and complex plasmas – on parabolic flights, in the drop tower, on sounding rockets and on board the ISS. These activities are accompanied by experimental and theoretical research work on Earth, as well as numerical simulations. With over 100 scientific publications since the programme started in 2001, the plasma crystal experiments have been among the most successful research work ever to take place on the ISS.

About the project

The PK-4 plasma crystal laboratory is a European-Russian collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency, Roskos­mos (en­glisch), with scientific leadership from the DLR Re­search Group Com­plex Plas­mas at the DLR Institute of Materials Physics in Space (formerly at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, MPE) and the Russian Academy of Sciences Joint Institute for High Temperatures (JIHT). The experimental hardware was developed in-house by the group during their time at MPE, and by OHB System AG (formerly Kayser-Threde GmbH). PK-4 is funded by ESA and Roscosmos. Additional funding for the project in Germany was provided by the The DLR Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Max Planck So­ci­ety.

  • Bernadette Jung
    Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Ober­paf­fen­hofen, Weil­heim, Augs­burg
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    Pub­lic Af­fairs and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
    Telephone: +49 8153 28-2251
    Fax: +49 8153 28-1243
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Weßling
  • Hubertus Thomas
    DLR In­sti­tute of Ma­te­ri­al Physics in Space
    Head of Re­search Group Com­plex Plas­mas
    Telephone: +49 8153 28-1915


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