Tag: ISS

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

Don't panic

06/02/2015

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

Don't panic

27/01/2015

Yesterday’s motto: don’t panic!

In the photo: astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti during an emergency simulation.


Don’t panic is written in large letters across the Hitchiker’s guide to the galaxy in Douglas Adam’s novel of the same name. Don’t panic was also our motto yesterday in the Columbus Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany as well as in the International Space Station control centres in Houston, Moscow and Tsukuba, Japan.

At 9:44 CET an emergency alarm was triggered on the International Space Station that implied ammonia from the external cooling circuit could have leaked into its interior. Following emergency protocol the astronauts quickly went to the Russian part of the Station as no ammonia is used for the cooling circuits in those modules. The astronauts could see from air measurements that they were perfectly safe in the Russian segment.

From the start there was some doubt as to whether ammonia really was leaked but for safety the crew was told to stay in the Russian segment while the situation was analyzed in detail. The astronauts were fast to inform us that they were fine: Samantha tweeted to the world: “Thanks for your concern, we are all doing well!” In this type of emergency the external ammonia cooling circuit is quickly shut down and working pressure is reduced to prevent further inflow of toxic gas to the modules. Yesterday the ammonia loop B was shut down meaning half the cooling performance of the Space Station was no longer available. The Columbus Control Centre had to partially shut down the Columbus space laboratory to reduce heat production. While the astronauts waited for the call to reopen the hatch, the control centers were busy trying to get a first idea of what was happening and adapt the Station’s configuration to the new situation. While we were doing this experts were called in to find out why the emergency alarm sounded. In the afternoon we came to the conclusion that the reported measurements that triggered the alarm could not be trusted. Detailed analysis based on other measurements indicated a computer problem and not a real emergency scenario. In the evening the crew was given a “Go” to enter the American part of the Space Station wearing gas masks and take measurements – no ammonia was detected. At around 21:00 CET the astronauts opened the hatch and could sleep in the American part of the station. Although the danger was a false alarm the B Loop is still shut down – we do not want to rush things but bring the Station slowly back to full operations from its present configuration. The emergency has evolved into a scheduling problem for us as we try to readjust the schedule to make up for the lost time.

In a way the situation happened at the best possible time. The astronauts were just about to set up experiments with living fruit flies and other biological experiments. These experiments would have failed if they had left them alone during their time in the Russian segment. ‘Luckily’ the alarm was triggered just before they started so the experiments will be able to run safely in the near future.

The experiments and hardware in the Columbus laboratory seems to have survived the emergency power down as well. Tomorrow we think Samantha and Terry will be able to conduct the first session of the Airway Monitoring experiment as planned despite yesterday’s problems.

In conclusion: if there really had been an ammonia leak, the astronauts and control centres had the situation fully under control. But this is a reminder to us all of the importance of training for emergencies over and over again and to play them out in our minds, so when they happen we don’t panic

Thomas Uhlig, Columbus Flight Director

Original blog post (in German): http://www.dlr.de/blogs/de/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-9260/15960_read-791/

Don't panic

15/01/2015

THE ASTRONAUT DAILY SCHEDULE

After a short glance on my telemetry displays I can see indications, that the power outlet, which feeds the Columbus lights, draws some power: “COL-FLIGHT, STRATOS, Columbus lights are ON!”

The answer comes immediately: “Copy that, STRATOS, so the crew is awake!”

The astronauts are ready to kick off their day!

A standard crew day onboard ISS starts with around 1 hour of post-sleep time. Crew can have breakfast, prepare for the day and read the “Daily Summary”, a sort of newspaper, which we put together with the other control centers and which is used to provide the crew with the ISS big-picture status, comments to the daily plan, the Flight Control Teams roster, as well as a Q&A section and (sometimes) jokes and cartoons

It does not sound that different from the morning routine of any other human being preparing for work on planet Earth, does it?

The first official interaction with the Control Centers around the world is during the mDPC (“morning Daily Planning Conference”): Crew and the Flight Controllers tag-up on the daily operations, discuss deltas to the plan and address any crew question that might arise.

The termination of the mDPC marks the start of the actual work-day for the crew. 6.5 hours of their day will be divided between conducting experiments, installing new payloads, executing repairs and “housekeeping”!

In addition to the work time, 1 hour is always allocated for a midday meal, and 2.5 hours are strictly scheduled for physical exercise: crewmembers use a cycle ergometer (i.e. an exercise bike) for cardiovascular exercise, a treadmill for cardiovascular exercise – loading the skeletal system and maintaining the neuromuscular patterns for locomotion, and a Resistance Exercise Device for maintaining muscles and bones.

122A4677Once the daily activities are completed, it is time for the eDPC (“evening Daily Planning Conference”). This is “goodnight” time: interactions with the crew on the Space-to-Ground voice channels are interrupted to allow them some well-deserved rest time, we also switch off any camera inside the space station! Only in case of contingency scenarios the Ground Teams would make contact again.

After a round call to all control centers for any input, crew is off-duty: they can have dinner, check social media and watch TV or movies, or spend some “quality-time” sightseeing from Cupola.

Then it’s bed time: 8.5 hours of good sleep in micro-gravity

One last thing! A dedicated electronic tool is available to both Crew and Ground Teams, called OSTPV (“Onboard Short Term Plan Viewer”): it shows the so-called timeline, the schedule of the ISS and is divided in several bands for Crew and Ground, and each activity is represented by a “bar” It is driving the crew day – and it can drive astronauts crazy, as you can convince yourself …


Should you be interested in the current OSTPV: We give you a little bit of insight here.

Alessandro Rovera

Don't panic

29/11/2014