August 9, 2018

horizons mission: a lunar eclipse and a wealth of science

  • The German ESA astronaut, Alexander Gerst, has been living and working on the International Space Station ISS for around two months.
  • Experiments such as the MagVector/MFX-2 planetary simulator and FLUMIAS cell biology microscope are already delivering scientific results.
  • An upgrade is optimising the PK-4 plasma crystal experiment.
  • Focus: Space

The German ESA astronaut, Alexander Gerst, has now been living and working on the International Space Station ISS for around two months. While some horizons mission experiments involving the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) have yet to commence, other trials are already delivering scientific results, such as the MagVector/MFX-2 planetary simulator and FLUMIAS cell biology microscope.

Front-row seat for the lunar eclipse

On 27 July, a very special kind of natural spectacle occurred: the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century. People on the ground were kept in suspense, but it was probably the crew of the ISS that had the best view of this spectacular event. Alexander Gerst's photos gave an impression of this. "Just took a photo of the lunar eclipse from the International Space Station. Tricky to capture. The slight hue of blue is actually the Earth's atmosphere, just before the Moon is 'diving into it'," is how the German ESA astronaut captioned the shots on his Twitter account.

Mission accomplished: FLUMIAS sends images of living cells to Earth

The FLUMIAS microscope, which enables high-resolution, real-time imaging of living cells on the ISS for the first time, was installed in 'TangoLab-2' in the US segment of the space station and operated for 10 days starting on 3 July. During this time, the system generated a total of 1.2 terabytes of data. It captured test images of both fixed and living cells, in order to investigate the influence of microgravity on cytoskeletal elements. "During the mission, daily overview images were sent to Earth," reports Catharina Carstens, responsible for the FLUMIAS experiment at the DLR Space Administration. "The project team were therefore able to verify the microscope's functionality as well as assess the condition of the cells and alter the experiment settings." FLUMIAS was finally switched off on 16 July. On 1 August, the facility was disconnected and transferred to the Dragon capsule, which transported it back to Earth on 3 August.

Ups and downs with the MagVector/MFX-2 planetary simulator

The misfortune of scientists using the MagVector/MFX-2 planetary simulator to investigate the interactions of Earth's magnetic field with a variable electrical conductor turned out to be rather fortuitous. Back in June, US astronaut Serena-Aunon Chancellor added two new sensor boxes to the equipment. The facility went into operation on 2 July and began investigating samples under the scientific supervision of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof. Following the successful start of the experiment series, an anomaly occurred, meaning that some of the sensor data could no longer be recorded. Alexander Gerst was quick to resolve the problem by replacing the boot stick and performing a successful repair. More samples have now been successfully examined and the experiments are again running nominally – albeit with a shorter duration. "We are pleased that the error could be remedied so quickly," says Volker Schmid, horizons Mission Manager at DLR. "The measurements will have to be completed soon, as NASA then needs the MFX cooling water and vacuum connections elsewhere".

Cold Atoms Laboratory generates first test condensates

The Cold Atoms Laboratory (CAL) of the US space agency NASA was installed in the Destiny module of the ISS at the end of May. The lab, which will examine ultra-cold quantum gases, is now in the commissioning phase. The project scientists have since confirmed that ultra-cold clouds of rubidium atoms can be generated in the laboratory. These so-called Bose-Einstein condensates have temperatures of just 100 nanokelvins, that is one ten-millionth of a kelvin above absolute zero. Scientific operation is due to begin in September, and will also involve German scientists from the Universities of Ulm and Hannover.

PK-4 ready for new plasma crystal experiments

The PK-4 plasma crystal experiment is also ready for a new series of tests. It examines complex plasmas – electrically conductive gases that have been enriched with microparticles – under microgravity. Scientists hope to gain fundamental insights into solid state and fluid physics, which could also be used in applications such as microchip technology and in the field of medicine. A hardware upgrade, transported to the ISS using a Progress freighter, can now be incorporated into the system. Initial functional tests have been successful, so the next series of experiments can begin as planned. "The scientists have waited a long time for this upgrade and are very happy with the initial test results," says Pascal Heintzmann, PK-4 Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration, adding: "They hope this will lead to a significant improvement in the quality of future investigations".

Soft Matter Dynamics/CompGran investigates the dynamics of granular matter

The ESA Soft Matter Dynamics experiment was transported to the ISS in June 2018 aboard a Dragon capsule and installed in the Columbus module on 19 July. The system began operating during the last week of July with the CompGran measurement cells. This facility will investigate the behaviour of granules without the disturbing influence of gravity. By mid-November, a total of four measurement campaigns will have taken place, each lasting one week. The findings could be used to improve the industrial processing of bulk solids, such as coal dust, flour and grain.

Initial shake tests as part of the ARISE student experiment

The ARISE experiment has also been launched and was switched on for the first time on 16 July. This experiment, submitted by students from the University of Duisburg-Essen as part of the DLR Space Administration high-flyers competition, will examine the process of planet formation. In order to simulate these processes, tiny glass spheres are shaken in a transparent container and the interaction of electrostatic charges monitored by a camera. The start-up went smoothly and initial experiments have also been successful.


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. Thomas Driebe

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
German Space Agency at DLR
Microgravity Research and Exploration
Königswinterer Straße 522-524, 53227 Bonn

Anna Catharina Carstens

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