Monthly Archive: March 2015

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

[youtube zpAfrbYtTOs]

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

Don't panic


Lipids: the good, the bad and the ugly

We could call them the good, the bad and the ugly! No, we are not talking of spaghetti westerns and the famous 1966 film directed by Sergio Leone. Instead, we are talking about  a type of fat called lipids. Often we speak badly about them, but some are essential to our health as they reduce chronic inflammation, help lower “bad” cholesterol  – LDL – and are a valuable aid in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Others, however, are harmful and should be avoided.

Good lipids activate genes that burn calories, increase metabolism and improve insulin activity. Bad ones have the opposite effect.

The group of good lipids are part of the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: they are powerful anti-inflammatory agents and are found in salmon, mackerel, sardines, flax and walnuts. Monounsaturated fats lower cholesterol and sugar levels in the blood, and are found in olive oil, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, avocado and in sesame seeds.

Some saturated fats also belong to the good fats. In abundance they are not good for us, especially fats from cheese and meat, but a small amount, for example from coconut milk, can be useful to the body thanks to the lauric acid that is important for our central nervous system. Finally, some of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids can produce anti-inflammatory substances. You should try to eat only small doses from unrefined sources, that is to say from  not overly industrially processed food, such as scold-pressed sesame, sunflower and walnut oil.

The second group of “bad” fats include all the other omega-6 fatty acids: they are polyunsaturated refined and cold-pressed fats in vegetable oils. Arachidonic acid, found in milk, its derivatives and in red meat also form part of this group. Other saturated fatty acids are also harmful, these are often found in beef, chicken, cheese, milk and dairy products. Contrary to what you might think, eggs contain very little fat.

Even some synthetic fats have a negative effect on the metabolism because they are industrially produced through hydrogenation, a process in which hydrogen is added to a vegetable oil to turn it into a solid product. This includes margarine for example, but these fats are used in bakery products  as well such as in crackers, cookies, snacks and in fried and processed food. Excessive consumption of these “bad” fats reduces the health of the heart and blood vessels and can increase the risk of cancer.

Filippo Ongaro

Challenge | Fats and cardiovascular risk


How lipid fat can be good: omega-3 as a source of energy.

Imagine you ate nothing but fast food for a whole month, three times a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner), you could even stop all exercise. Do you think it is impossible? It can be done but it certainly is bad for your health. In the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” Morgan Spurlock, did exactly that to show the physical and psychological effects of such a diet. At the end of the experiment, the director put on 11 kg (his starting weight being  84 kg) increasing his body mass by 13%.

This is an extreme scenario, but disturbing nonetheless, especially when you consider that many people regularly eat so-called junk food. However, it would be equally wrong to completely give up fat. In fact, “good” fats form an important supply of energy for the body and play different roles in our body; for example polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3 are essential for the proper functioning of our nervous system.

The good fats are beneficial both on Earth and in space. Without adequate precautions, spaceflight can have many negative effects on human physiology, such as loss of muscle and bone mass. However, a diet rich in food that contains omega-3 (such as oily fish), can slow this mechanism and help maintain bone mineral density.

Beyond the preservation of muscles, bones and immune function, omega-3 may play a role in cancer prevention and in countering the effects of radiation during long-duration missions. The first studies on animals seem to show a positive outcome in this regard. Furthermore, depression and personality disorders have been associated with the lack of such fats. In fact, these fatty acids could affect not only the cognitive functions, but also mood and emotional state.

Dr. Filippo Ongaro

Challenge | Fats and cardiovascular risk


Spotting the Solar eclipse on the Space Station

Map of ISS compared to solar ecclipse. Credits: G. Holtkamp

Map of ISS in relation to solar eclipse. Credits: G. Holtkamp

This Friday, parts of the northern hemisphere will be shrouded in darkness as the Moon moves in between the Sun and the Earth.

For ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and her crewmates on the International Space Station don’t have to worry about clouds getting in the way of their view. From their orbit above Earth 400 km high they will have a great view of the eclipse.

From around 09:00 UTC the Moon will block alot of the Sunlight from reaching the International Space Station, just missing a total eclipse

Here is what the Earth looks like during a solar eclipse. The shadow of the Moon can be seen darkening part of Earth. This shadow moved across the Earth at nearly 2000 kilometers per hour. Credit: Mir 27 Crew; Copyright: CNES

Moon’s shadow on Earth during eclipse seen from Russian Mir station in 1999. The shadow moved across our planet at nearly 2000 kilometers an hour.
Credit: Mir 27 Crew; Copyright: CNES

Aside from looking up at the Solar eclipse, Samantha will have another interesting view: if she looks down at Earth she will see the shadow the Moon casts on the clouds and ground. In 1999 astronauts on the Russian space station MIR took this eclipse picture with the spectacular shadow of the Moon on our planet.

At the time of the Solar eclipse Samantha will be working on the Triplelux experiment that is investigating how immune cells adapt to spaceflight. To run this experiment she will put immune cells in a centrifuge and put them 90 minutes later in the Space Station’s freezer for analysis back on Earth.

Samantha using centrifuge in preparation for the  Triplelux experiment.

Samantha using centrifuge in preparation for the Triplelux experiment.

If the experiment runs smoothly Samantha might have time between the two operations to grab a camera and float to the Cupola observatory to take pictures and video of the eclipse.

For us on Earth, we will have to hope for clear skies and follow Samantha on Twitter via @AstroSamantha.

Don't panic


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:

Don't panic


Change of command on the ISS

Three International Space Station crew members are scheduled to leave the orbiting laboratory on Wednesday 11 March after almost six months in space performing scientific research and technology demonstrations. Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore of NASA handed over command of the International Space Station to NASA astronaut Terry Virts early this  afternoon, marking the start of Expedition 43. Wilmore will return to Earth 11 March in the Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft with Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova, wrapping up almost six months in orbit. Here is the schedule to follow their return to Earth.


Watch the replay of the handing over here:

[youtube bsd3oOKIBLM]

Don't panic