January 23, 2016

Cancer research in microgravity with TEXUS 53

DLR sounding rocket carries five experiments into space

On 23 January 2016, five German science experiments travelled on board a German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), TEXUS sounding rocket, to take a 'short trip' in microgravity. These experiments in biology, physics and materials research were able to proceed without the influence of Earth's gravity for approximately six minutes. The experiments were aimed at, among other things, answering questions in the field of cancer research and optimising solar cells. The TEXUS 53 rocket was launched at 09:30 CET from the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, northern Sweden, and carried the experiments to an altitude of 253 kilometres.

Researchers at the University of Magdeburg are interested in tracing the mechanisms involved in the functioning of cancer cells. In the THYROID experiment, they are examining the influence of microgravity on isolated human thyroid cancer cells. "The results will mean that we are better capacitated to detect early genetic changes and assess their significance for metabolism in cells," explains Principal Investigator Daniela Grimm. Earlier experiments have already demonstrated that short periods of microgravity affect both the structure and genetic material of the cells. In addition, it would seem that long-term microgravity is able to cause changes in cell growth and mitigate the malignancy of these cells. These results indicate that microgravity cancer cell research is enabling new insights, which may be helpful in the development of new approaches for anticancer agents. On the TEXUS 53 flight, scientists wanted, above all, to determine details of the genes and proteins in cancer cells.

How can solar cells make a better contribution to energy in the future?

Whether solar energy can play an increasingly important role in global energy production in the future depends – in addition to storage capabilities – primarily on the efficiency and quality of the individual solar cells. Optimising this is the aim of the experiment by researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Systems and Device Technology (Fraunhofer-Institut für Integrierte Systeme und Bauelementetechnologie; IISB) in Erlangen and the University of Freiburg. 'ParSiWal-2' (Bestimmung der kritischen Einfanggeschwindigkeit von Partikeln bei der gerichteten Erstarrung von Solarsilizium im Weltall – determination of the critical capture speed of particles during the directional solidification of solar grade silicon in space) examines the undesirable incorporation of silicon nitride (Si3N4) particles that can occur during the crystallisation of silicon. As this contamination reduces the quality of solar cells, it is important to understand how it can be prevented during production. On the TEXUS 51 flight in April 2015, scientists successfully studied the incorporation of silicon carbide (SiC) particles with the precursor ParSiWal experiment.

Laser technology for space

Optical lasers are already being applied in many areas of research, such as in climate research, to detect trace gases in the atmosphere, or in astrophysics. In the 'FOKUS-1B' (Faserlaser-basierter optischer Kammgenerator unter Schwerelosigkeit – fibre-laser-based optical comb generator under microgravity conditions) experiment, an optical laser (frequency comb) developed at the Max-Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, will be tested for its suitability for applications in space.

In the University of Berlin KALEXUS experiment (Kalium-Laser-Experimente unter Schwerelosigkeit – potassium laser experiment under microgravity conditions), scientists are studying the properties of miniaturised laser systems (External Cavity Diode Lasers; ECDL) for potassium spectroscopy. This experiment was designed to test whether this technology can be used on rocket flights. This is an important step in terms of its use in future space missions.

Plants can sense microgravity

How do living things sense microgravity? This is the question being asked by scientists at the University of Tübingen in their CAMELEON experiment. For this they measured the content of calcium ions in a model plant, thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), during the TEXUS flight. Plants use calcium signalling chains, for example, in their perception of gravity or microgravity. It is known from previous studies on parabolic flights that under microgravity conditions, after a few seconds, an increase in calcium content occurs and could be observed for more than 20 seconds. As six minutes of experimentation time in microgravity is available on a TEXUS flight, the scientists wanted to check how long the increased calcium values last and whether there is a specific microgravity-related variation in calcium content.

Approximately 320 scientific experiments have been conducted since 1977 in the TEXUS programme – 70 percent of them on behalf of DLR and about 30 percent within the framework of participation by the European Space Agency (ESA). The DLR Space Administration contracted with Airbus Defence and Space GmbH in Bremen for the launch preparations and implementation of the TEXUS 53 campaign. OHB-System AG in Munich and the DLR Mobile Rocket Base (MObile RAketenBAsis; MORABA) also remain involved. The two-stage VSB-30 launcher was jointly developed by the Brazilian space agencies DCTA (Departamento de Ciência e Tecnologia Aeroespacial) and IAE (Instituto de Aeronáutica e Espaço), MORABA and the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC).


Diana Gonzalez Velden

Communications & Media Relations, Web Editor
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
German Space Agency at DLR
Königswinterer Straße 522-524, 53227 Bonn
Tel: +49 228 447-388

Dr Otfried Joop

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Space Administration, Microgravity Research and Life Sciences
Königswinterer Straße 522-524, 53227 Bonn-Oberkassel