“Horizons” the next Gerst mission

Posted on May 30, 2017 | 0 comments

‘Horizons’ is the name of German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst’s next mission. 41-year-old German geophysicist, Alexander Gerst is scheduled to embark on his second research trip to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of expedition 56/57 in late April 2018.. 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 around 380 kilometres, for six months – until the end of October 2018. The name ‘Horizons’ symbolises the curiosity and fascination of exploring and researching the unknown.

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.


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. Again, 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.


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.  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. The goal of the experiment is to produce freshly made bread aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in micro-gravity. The specimen will be the typical weekend German bread roll.


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.

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. CAL will be a facility for the study of ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS). It will enable research in a temperature regime and force free environment that is inaccessible to terrestrial laboratories. In the microgravity environment, up to 20 second long interaction times and as low as 1 picokelvin temperatures are achievable, unlocking the potential to observe new quantum phenomena. The CAL facility is designed for use by multiple scientific investigators and to be upgradable/maintainable on orbit. CAL will also be a pathfinder experiment for future quantum sensors based on laser cooled atoms. After docking with ISS the CAL payload will be installed by astronauts into an EXPRESS (EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to Space Station) Rack inside the space station.

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. It investigates how Earth’s magnetic field interacts with an electrical conductor. Using extremely sensitive magnetic sensors placed around and above a conductor, researchers can gain insight into ways that the magnetic field influences how conductors work. This research not only helps improve future International Space Station experiments and electrical experiments, but it could offer insights into how magnetic fields influence electrical conductors in general – the backbone of our technology.


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. CIMON is an experiment of the DLR Space Administration in cooperation with Airbus Defence and Space, IBM and the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) Munich. CIMON is a personal assistant capable of voice and facial recognition. Its purpose is to study the psychological effects of long space missions on crew members and try out suitable countermeasures, especially those that reduce stress. A special emphasis will be given on data mining and interactions between humans and artifical intelligence (AI).

The ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) experiment investigates animal migration patterns. It is expected that the ICARUS experimental system will be installed on the outer shell of the Russian Zvezda module of the International Space Station (ISS) in cooperation with the Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS in June 2017. With the data generated by ICARUS, scientists expect revolutionary new insights about life, behavior, vital functions and death of the animals on our planet. The globally collected data allows us among other things conclusions for the spread of diseases (zoonosis), understanding of climate change and disaster forecast. The research results to be expected here are of invaluable importance for mankind and finally for life on earth.

Check out the following sites and sources for more information:

Neue Horizonte für Alexander Gerst

Discovering new horizons

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