May 29, 2017 | The German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst presents the name and logo of his next mission to the International Space Station ISS

Discovering new horizons

  • In April 2018, the Horizon mission will take Germany's ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst on his second 'research voyage' to the International Space Station ISS.
  • On 29 May 2017, the 41-year-old geophysicist announced his second long-term mission to the ISS from the ESA European Astronaut Centre in Cologne.
  • Focus: aerospace, Industry 4.0

'Horizons' is the name of German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst's next mission. The 41-year-old geophysicist will take part in expedition 56/57, his second 'research voyage' to the International Space Station ISS, at the end of April 2018, just under a year from now. After the Belgian ESA astronaut, Frank de Winne, Gerst will be the second European to be commander of the ISS. Gerst will remain in orbit, at an altitude of almost 400 kilometres, for six months – until the end of October 2018. The name 'Horizons' symbolises the curiosity and fascination of exploring and researching the unknown.

For the first time, creative minds beyond the realms of aerospace have played an important role in the development of the logo. At the initiative of the DLR Space Administration and in close cooperation with Alexander Gerst himself, students of communication design at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences worked under Christian Pfestorf, Director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center, to develop eight draft designs for the final Horizon logo.

In this way, Horizons is venturing into uncharted territory –even before the mission begins. Fittingly, during the presentation of his second long-term mission to the ISS at the ESA European Astronaut Centre in Cologne on 29 May, Gerst emphasised: "We are driven to reach and even go beyond new horizons. The ISS gives us the opportunity to leave our Mothership Earth. After all, the Space Station is more than just a unique laboratory. It is also the first spaceship that shows us how we can live beyond the terrestrial boundaries in an international community. For me, Horizons is an almost perfect continuation of my Blue Dot mission. Its focus was on our blue planet; now I am pleased to be able to direct my gaze at new horizons."

Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board, emphasised that research on board the ISS delivers important contributions and impulses for societal and global challenges, for instance with regard to increasing digitalisation, climate change and Industry 4.0. "For a high-technology hub and an export nation like Germany, human spaceflight as a cutting-edge technology is indispensable. Germany is one of the most important partners in the ESA-ISS elements and the European use of the ISS itself. After all, the ISS is a unique and innovative laboratory and test environment for experiments that cannot be performed in this way on Earth. Gerst will be the first German ISS commander on his upcoming Horizons mission. We offer him our full support in transforming science fiction into hard scientific facts."

Around 35 German experiments planned

German universities and research institutions, German companies and DLR as a research centre will contribute approximately 35 experiments to the Horizons mission. Here, the planned range of topics extends from biological and medical experiments, to research topics from the fields of (astro)-physics and material sciences. They also include technology demonstrations, an education programme for children and adolescents, and industrially or commercially-motivated applications.

From technology demonstrations ...

"The ISS is increasingly used for industrially-motivated technology demonstrations. For instance, the SpaceTex experiment is scheduled to continue. SpaceTex started during the Blue Dot mission in 2014 and it involves the testing of materials for ideal functional clothing. This time the focus will be on improving the scientific findings and acquiring statistical substantiation," explains Volker Schmid, Horizons mission manager at DLR. The MetabolicSpace experiment uses a wearable measurement system to analyse the human metabolism. It will record important data on respiration and other indicators during sporting and normal activities by the astronauts. Current systems on board the ISS are not wearable, so only brief monitoring windows have been available so far.

The planned technology demonstration Bake in Space, which received the ESA-BIC Startup Challenge Award at this year's DLR INNOspace Masters, seeks to equip the ISS with a space-qualified oven to provide astronauts with fresh bread. It will use a special dough that is also suitable for use in a microgravity environment. DLR mission manager Schmid explains: "If this experiment successfully completes all necessary qualifications in advance of the mission and is then sent to the ISS, it may indeed be interesting for the provision of fresh food on long-term missions, for instance on a journey to Mars."

... and fundamental research ...

Twelve German experiments on the Horizons mission are foreseen to address fundamental questions from the fields of biology, medicine, physics and material science. A selection of these are:

FLUMIAS – a high-resolution fluorescence microscope used before in a microgravity environment for short periods of time on DLR parabolic flights – would be a first for the ISS. FLUMIAS allows the 'live' observation of processes unfolding in the cells of plants, animals and humans. The microscope is designed to focus on certain structures and cell constituents, and how these change in a microgravity setting. FLUMIAS is a technology demonstrator. There are also plans to install a larger microscope with a centrifuge to 'activate and deactivate' microgravity on board the ISS. This system would explore the cellular level to answer questions concerning the effects of gravity on muscular and bone metabolism, and on the immune and nervous systems.

Installed in the European Columbus module of the International Space Station, the MyotonS experiment will provide Gerst with a small device that helps to check how fit he really is: by transmitting a pulse through the skin the device can determine the behaviour of the muscular system lying below in just seconds. This will enable the first rapid and simple assessment of how successful the measures to combat muscle and bone atrophy, which occur in a weightless environment, actually are. In the long term, this will allow the preparation of tailored astronaut training programmes that address specific muscle groups. Even people down on Earth will benefit: anyone completing rehabilitation after a prolonged period of illness or injury will be able to use the device to train more effectively.

The NASA research apparatus CAL (Cold Atoms Lab) – a miniature laboratory to research ultracold atoms – is scheduled for transport to the ISS at the end of 2017. German and US-American scientists are cooperating closely on the CAL experiments. Among other things, they intend to investigate Bose-Einstein condensates in a microgravity environment. These condensates are extremely fragile quantum gases comprising several thousand atoms that are quickly torn apart when exposed to gravity. Gerst will support the German scientists in their CAL research, as the ISS offers a unique observation window for this otherwise 'invisible' microcosm. The research is of interest to review Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. What is more, ultracold atoms are contributing factors in extremely precise measurement procedures for lengths and times, the measurement of gravitational waves or the development of quantum computers.

The German astronaut will also be tasked with continuing the ongoing series of experiments on plasma crystals and electromagnetic levitation – meaning research into the solidification behaviour of molten metals. The MagVector/MFX simulation, which Gerst successfully put into operation in 2014, will also be continued. This experiment in the area of astrophysics uses electrically cooled, high-temperature superconductors to explore the interactions between Earth’s magnetic field and other celestial bodies.

... to assistance systems ...

CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN) is a mobile and autonomous assistance system that is designed to help Gerst in his everyday routines on board the ISS. It will feature the first use of artificial intelligence (AI). CIMON is an experiment of the DLR Space Administration in cooperation with Airbus Defence and Space, IBM and the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) Munich. The system is a technology demonstrator that will provide the following and other services: increased efficiency and productivity, personal assistance functions with voice and facial recognition, as well as testing of AI-based human–machine interaction over a prolonged period.

The ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) experiment investigates animal migration patterns. The movements of migratory birds, but also small animals like insects, can provide information on, for instance, climatic changes on Earth. This will allow conclusions to be made on how to protect species and habitats. For this purpose, the animals are fitted with mini sensors (animal trackers). Their data is transmitted to the ISS and then back to Earth. The necessary hardware will be transported to the ISS by the end of 2017 and then installed on the outer shell of the Russian Zvezda module. The Project is funded by the DLR Space Administration with support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Technology (BMWi); the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell is in charge of the scientific side of the project.

... and the promotion of young scientists

Education is also an integral part of Alexander Gerst's 2018 Horizons mission. In addition to the school competition Earth Guardian 2 and the student competition High-Flyers, the mission will include other educational activities. For instance, a number of interactive experiments (Flying Classroom 2) are foreseen, as well as Project 4D – the Time Capsule: an aluminium sphere, manufactured by trainees at DLR, will be sealed by Gerst on board the ISS, to be opened 50 years later, in 2068. Everyone is invited to suggest ideas for contents: the Project 4D, organised by the youth portal DLR_next and the German Reading Foundation, invites schoolchildren in Germany to express their hopes and aspirations for the future, and to submit them in writing by 30 June 2017.


Elisabeth Mittelbach

Me­dia in­quiries Ger­man Space Agen­cy
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Ger­man Space Agen­cy at DLR
Königswinterer Str. 522-524, 53227 Bonn

Volker Schmid

ISS Specialist Group Leader, Head of the Cosmic Kiss Mission
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
German Space Agency at DLR
Science and Exploration
Königswinterer Straße 522-524, 53227 Bonn