Tag: experiment

Taming a monster: ESA MARES experiment

Some operations make us nervous because there is not much about we can do about them from ground. The MARES experiment in the Columbus space laboratory is one of these: it is large, highly complex, equipment and can sometimes be a bit of a problem child.

The Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise system (MARES) allows us to investigate muscle groups of astronauts and contributes to answering essential questions that arise during long space flights: how does the human body react to weightlessness? How fast to muscles degrade when they are not used in weightlessness?

Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise System (MARES). Credits: ESA

Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise System (MARES). Credits: ESA

We think of MARES as a bit of a monster as it fills half of the Columbus module –it takes a while to unpack so each experiment involving MARES takes a long time, afterwards it must be disassembled again. It looks a little like the torture devices that can be found in many fitness centres – this might explain why the flight controllers have so much respect for the machine. It is a mechanically very complex device and any problems astronauts have encountered in the past have proven difficult to solve over the radio…

So it was with a sigh of relief on my part that I was not on console when this was planned to be setup: many hours of astronaut crew time are designated in the timeline to work on MARES. I got nervous again when a colleague fell sick and I had to take over after all …

Ultimately, of course my colleagues and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti did excellent work: they had to replace a battery (a machine of this size requires more power than Columbus can provide on its own), install a new hard drive and finally test the device for the first time in orbit through by calibrating its servo-motors.

The machine was then put back where every monster belongs, in its “cage”, an experiment cabinet in Columbus – until next time…!  

Thomas Uhlig Columbus Control Centre

Cover picture:  Only in Space recommended: four years ago MARES was installed in Columbus – Astronaut Doug Wheelock and proves prowess … (Credits: NASA)

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Breathe in …the Airway Monitoring Experiment.

I remember clearly the long discussions we had when I worked as a lifeguard many years ago: should we give heart patients in need “nitroglycerine spray”? On the one hand, the nitro spray can provide fast relief to people suffering from heart conditions – on the other hand it can quickly drop a patient’s blood pressure, which should be avoided at all costs in an emergency. We decided against it – and we took the right decision.

A nitroglycerin spray acts on nitric oxide which is produced by the human body itself and is a good indicator of airway inflammation: a higher amount of nitric oxide in exhaled air indicates an inflammation. How this works exactly and how air pressure and gravity-influenced blood flow can affect readings were researched in the complex “Airway Monitoring” experiment last Friday on the Space Station.

The results are important for basic medical research and for future manned missions to other celestial bodies. Moon and Mars dust is very aggressive so not only do mechanical parts that are exposed need to be prepared, experts are also having headaches about how to protect the human respiratory tract. Inevitably dust will collect in air locks and spacesuits in the air of lunar or Mars stations. In these cases it will be important to get early signs of airway inflammation…

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and NASA astronaut Terry Virts had begun preparations for the experiment on Thursday. They brought the equipment into the Quest airlock, which is usually used as a door to the outside of the International Space Station. Barry Wilmore as Crew Medical Officer was also briefed to standby his colleagues during the experiment.

On Friday, the experiment started with Samantha and Terry started to reduce the pressure in the American airlock. The complicated procedures for this were developed through international teamwork. The expertise of the Danish DAMEC Center worked with flight surgeons, the team in Houston that controls the airlock, and us at Oberpfaffenhofen. At the Columbus Control Centre Katja Leuoth and Marius Bach supported the astronauts from the control room. This support was important as the astronauts needed support for such a complex experiment. The ground team found solutions in real-time for some questions, others needed more in-depth study and analysis. Now it is over to the scientists: the data must be processed and evaluated – and a decision must be made to continue with more experiment runs. The Columbus Control Centre will be ready to put the astronauts back in the airlock to answer their questions and pave the way for future missions landing in “thin air”…


More information here: https://plus.google.com/+SamanthaCristoforetti/posts/MtNoDoiRMfZ https://plus.google.com/+SamanthaCristoforetti/posts/boWGMq3mPgX http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2015/03/Samantha_working_on_Airway_Monitoring

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An ‘elegant’ interview

After my bad experience interviewing fruit-flies, today my boss came to me saying I should interview someone who has been referred to as “elegant”… “And transparent,” she added with a smile. She’s a good boss, my boss is. I know she trusts me and that she values my work. The fruit-fly experience is now in the past. So I dutifully phoned the number the boss gave me and transcribed. Good morning professor, thanks for agreeing to this interview with Outpost 42! My pleasure, for my colleagues and myself it is a duty and a pleasure to make a small contribution to science and its outreach. You are very kind, professor. I know you will take care of an experiment to improve the health of astronauts on long-duration missions. What is it? Together with other colleagues, I work on the EPIGENETICS experiment: we try to understand how living in weightlessness can induce inheritable genetic modifications without changes  in the DNA sequence. But DNA is genetic register is it not? If it does not change, it cannot transmit differences from past mutations. Am I wrong? Well, some changes that do not correspond to a changed DNA can be inherited. The DNA remains the same, but the way it is expressed changes. A simple comparison would be when different actors perform the same play. The script will remain the same, but its interpretation is different. The science that studies these kind of changes is called epigenetics. Aside from this example, where do you see such a mechanism in everyday life? A classic example is cell differentiation: some cells specialise, but do not change their basic DNA structure. Some recent studies suggest that epigenetic changes may also have an impact on aging and on tumors. Let’s go back to the astronauts and space. Why do you want to do this experiment in reduced gravity? We want to understand how a cell that has adapted to space can transmit its adaptation to the next generation of cells. Bones and muscles of astronauts undergo changes in long-duration missions: our experiment is aimed to better understand if there are changes at the level of each cell and what the link is between adaptation and mutation epigenetics. I’m curious to see how you conduct the experiment. In her blog Samantha Cristoforetti seems to be having a lot of fun with Epigenetics. It is because we are involved. Understandably so Professor, you and your colleagues are certainly charismatic people. What I meant to ask was with which organisms are you conducting the experiment? Please do not tell me that it is those arrogant fruit-flies! [laughs]. We do not need fruit flies, our involvement is enough. You and Samantha of course. I imagine that you follow our astronaut step by step from Earth as she deals with the organisms of study, are they bacteria? Look [he keeps laughing], there is a misunderstanding here. We are on the station together with Samantha. In what sense? In the only way possible. We are there with her: when we launched we were larvae. Then we awakened with a good bacterial nourishment: some of us were put in a centrifuge that simulates gravity while others were left free to float in zero-gravity. Once mature, we reproduced: the adults were taken away and put in the refrigerator (called MELFI) to be analysed on ground while the larvae continued eating and growing happily for five days. This process is repeated: adults are popped in the fridge and the second-generation larvae allowed to grow. And so on, for four generations… Why are you not saying anything? Have you lost interest? Professor … who you are you? I am a worm, of course. What? Worms? I’m talking on the phone with a worm? I am a Caenorhabditis elegans, in fact. I have the honour of being able to enjoy a certain elegance. Is it a problem? Think about it: we are just a millimetre long, and we are totally transparent, allowing researchers to observe our internal organs under a microscope easily. And we are almost all hermaphrodites. Hello? Hello? Anyone on the line? Mr. interviewer … we have to go, the MELFI awaits us: goodbye, then, we’ll tell Samantha you said “hi”!

Stefano Sandrelli

  To learn more about the Epigenetics experiment: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/1075.html Cover image: Caenorhabditis elegans — a millimeter-long roundworm with a genetic makeup scientists understand — will be central to a pair of Japan Aerospace Agency investigations into muscle and bone loss of astronauts on the International Space Station in the first few months of 2015. Image Credit: NASA

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The return of the fruit flies

When my Boss told me a few months ago to “Go and interview them,” I could not believe it. “Are you serious?” I replied. “You want me to interview those…” But she had already looked away, bored. Go and interview them: that is all I had to do. Who was I supposed to interview? The umpteenth interview with an astronaut? Samantha Cristoforetti? A flight controller at Columbus-Control Centre? An interview with Stefano Polato or Filippo Ongaro? Nah. No, the Boss had asked me to interview those tiny, pretentious, horrible fruit flies. “Soon they will be the real stars of space,” she said as I left. She was right. Perhaps that is why she is the Boss. As I am a serious reporter and I deliver to the Boss and here is the full transcript our interview: Houston, 07/01/2014 Why the silence and the sceptical look? Dear fruit flies, the interviewer should be the one to ask the first question, not you. Don’t you think? Yes but you have been staring at us for the last fifteen minutes. Don’t you think we do have something better to do seeing as we only live for a couple of weeks? With all due respect, I expected to interview someone a bit more … A bit more…? A bit more … with all due respect …. a little more important, more intellectually stimulating.… Look, let’s start with the questions please, we only have five minutes before our interview with the BBC, CNN and Rai news. We do hope they sent someone a bit brighter. Listen … the first question I prepared, I do not know if you will like it … So here goes …  my question is the following… Go, come on, hurry up! So: you are just fruit flies, little limp creatures, and as your name implies, rather insignificant. You buzz around fruit, you leave larvae behind, and you ruin the fruit for the rest of us. As far as I know only mosquitoes are worse than you. So I ask myself: why would anyone want you on the Space Station? We definitely set off on the wrong foot here! For a start, we have already participated in various missions on NASA’s Space Shuttles and our scientific name is Drosophila melanogaster. What’s your name? Stefano Sandrelli … There you go, just appreciate the difference! Drosophila melanogaster: sounds a bit better, right? A tad more noble, n’est-ce pas?. And if you were not so ignorant, you would know that for years we provide invaluable knowledge to the humans that study us. In fact, we are very renowned fruit flies in research and considered a “model organism”. And what does a “model organism” mean? It means that we are easy to breed, we reproduce in larger quantities than rabbits, our DNA has been known for over 20 years, we have only four pairs of chromosomes and, as if that is not enough, our genetic code is similar to human’s, especially with regard to the transmission of diseases. Approximately 77% of the genes carrying diseases in humans have an analogue in our genome: Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and so on. fruit flies for twitterThen it means you are useless since we already know about these diseases in humans, what is your purpose? Look, try switching on your brain, please. Scientists know about the genetic diseases of humans, but it is difficult to study the genetic transmission of a disease as it spans the lifetime of a human being, around 70-80 years. We  reproduce very fast: our life spans a couple of your weeks and each female lays around 600 eggs. Get where we are going? Our genome is transmitted in real-time, “live” in front of scientists eyes, to many descendants. From your reaction it seems as though you still do not get it, do you? But how many are going to space? We start with a little more than 100. It is the mechanism of genetic transmission that interests scientists, understand? And we show it to them, generation after generation. But why on the International Space Station? Because there is no gravity up there. And gravity could be an important part of genetic transmission. Our scientists have created a beautiful experiment! Tell me more … how does it work? The Fruit Lab System has three components: a small housing compartment in which we launch. A second compartment is where we live and get fed and where our larvae are extracted. What do the astronauts do with your larvae? Do they eat them? Are you fresh food? What??? Where do you come from? The larvae are stored in a refrigerator called MELFI where our offspring are preserved and brought back to Earth for further study. There is a third housing compartment, where we can fly freely, assuming we are not affected by weightlessness too much. Here scientists mounted a camera to watch us 24 hours a day. A sort of Big Brother for fruit flies. A number of us live in weightlessness while others live in a small centrifuge to simulate Earth’s gravity. The larvae we produce are frozen, brought back to earth and studied. Are you really convinced that something interesting for mankind may come out of this? Of course, this is what we aim for and the scientists whom we are trying to help. We have been helping humans to understand how their bodies function for over a century!   If you want to educate yourself, we have a dedicated blog on this experiment: http://www.nasa.gov/ames/research/space-biosciences/fruit-fly-lab-ffl-01-engineers-blog/#.VMDVsCzhino And Samantha Cristoforetti talked about it in her blog entry: https://plus.google.com/+SamanthaCristoforetti/posts/PGvbX97yTee Featuring in the cover image: The habitat for astro fruit flies created especially for studies in microgravity. Credits: NASA-Dominic Hart

Stefano Sandrelli

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