June 26, 2018

Alexander Gerst – the 'horizons' mission – creating a planetary laboratory and experiments on muscle atrophy

  • Alexander Gerst and the ISS crew have now begun the series of scientific experiments covered by the 'horizons' mission
  • For the first time, the muscles of astronauts on the ISS can be measured objectively, and muscle atrophy in space is being observed
  • The MagVector/MFX-2 experiment is investigating the effect of a magnetic field on rocks and thus the early development of planets
  • Focus: Spaceflight, health, radiation protection

On board the International Space Station (ISS), the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst and the other crewmembers of expedition 56/57 have begun working on the first experiments in the European Columbus research module. These include the Myotones experiment, which will examine Gerst's skeletal musculature. On Earth, these findings will be used to improve rehabilitation and training programmes focused on muscle and bone atrophy. In addition, the MagVector/MFX-2 experiment will have its first samples installed this week. In this experiment, planetary researchers will study the effect of Earth's magnetic field on different types of rock.

Objective measurement of muscle changes in astronauts for the first time

On 19 June 2018, the US astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor examined Alexander Gerst's muscles by placing the smartphone-sized MyotonPro device on his arms and legs. The device delivers a small mechanical impulse to the skin and the underlying muscles and measures how the muscle beneath reacts to it (using the mechanical oscillation signals from the relaxed muscle). Information about muscle tone, elasticity and stiffness can be derived from these results. Dieter Blottner, a professor at Charité Berlin who is leading the ISS experiment, is delighted that the first such measurements in space have been carried out successfully: "Now we have the comparative data we need for examining Alexander Gerst's muscles in the middle and at the end of the mission." The rationale for the study is to examine how muscle and bone structure change in microgravity conditions, an issue that has always been explored during long-term missions. In the Myotones project, the basic biomechanical properties of the skeletal musculature can now be determined quickly and objectively for the first time, using a non-invasive method. Human physiologists from the Charité university clinic in Berlin and the University of Southampton, together with the manufacturer Myoton AS, are thus able to precisely examine the changes to Gerst's muscles after three and six months in microgravity. Among other things, the experiment can also be used to gauge and evaluate the success of his training programme on the ISS. On Earth, the findings can be used to improve rehabilitation and training programmes. Diseases of the muscles, the bones or the connective tissue are a common cause of incapacity for work. Against this backdrop, optimised treatment, training programmes and objective assessment of muscular condition and effectiveness are vital. The experiment is funded by Charité Berlin, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) DLR Space Administration and the European Space Agency (ESA).

MagVector/MFX-2 – a planetary laboratory on the ISS

What influence does a magnetic field have on rocks and thus the early development of a planet? How can spacecraft be better protected from fluctuations in the magnetic field surrounding Earth? These questions are being investigated by planetary researchers in the MagVector/MFX-2 experiment on the ISS. The basis of the experiment is Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from permanent bombardment with high-energy particles from the Sun – known as the solar wind – and radiation from the cosmos. In this experiment, the researchers take advantage of the fact that the ISS is orbiting Earth at 28,000 kilometres per hour and therefore travels through Earth’s magnetic field 16 times a day. Last week, the ISS crew set up the instruments for the experiment in the Columbus laboratory, and over the coming days Alexander Gerst and the other members of the crew will insert and examine different rock samples and a reference sample for 24 hours each. Using magnetic field sensors, slight fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field lines near the rock samples are accurately captured along the trajectory of the ISS. "It is the mutual influence that Earth's magnetic field and the samples have on one another that primarily interests us," says Frank Sohl from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, which is providing scientific support for the campaign. “It allows us to observe, on a small scale, what is happening at much larger scales, such as when a metal-rich asteroid moves through the Sun’s interplanetary magnetic field."

For the purposes of the investigation, Sohl and his team have sent rocks that are very typical of the Solar System to the ISS, including a basalt sample from Spitsbergen. Basalts are prevalent on the surfaces of terrestrial planets and small bodies within the Solar System. The investigation will also study an iron-nickel meteorite and a chondrite. These were formed over 4.5 million years ago from materials in the early phase of the Solar System, making them among the oldest rocks in the system. The samples were provided by the Natural History Museum in Berlin.

MagVector/MFX-1 and 2 were developed and built by Airbus as an experiment for the 'horizons' mission. This was done on behalf of the DLR Space Administration, with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie; BMWi). These experiments provide a new and unique insight into the interplay between electrical conductors and magnetic fields, as the samples are moving through a planet's magnetic field at high speed. "This is only possible on board the ISS, and has never been done before," explains Sohl. "We are very excited about the results." An upgrade to the experiment has been installed over the past week, ensuring that the first test run for the 32 new magnetic field sensors was successful right from the start. The aforementioned experiments with the rock samples are expected to run until 13 July 2018. In addition to planetary research, the findings of MagVector/MFX can also contribute towards the development of magnetic shields to protect against charged particles, which will be vital for astronaut missions in the Solar System.

Alexander Gerst and the 'horizons' mission – conquering new frontiers for science and society

On 6 June 2018, Alexander Gerst set out on the 'horizons' mission – Knowledge for Tomorrow on the International Space Station (ISS). The programme comprises 151 experiments, 41 of which have German involvement. On board the ISS, which is the largest ever international technology project, the major space agencies are working together to develop solutions for the global challenges facing our society in terms of 'health, environment and climate change', as well as 'digitalisation, Industry 4.0, energy and future mobility'.


Dorothee Bürkle

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Media Relations, Energy and Transport Research

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

Ulrich Köhler

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Planetary Research
Rutherfordstraße 2, 12489 Berlin