Author Archives: chiara

Safe journey back, Samantha!

Safe journey back, Samantha! This time it seems to be true: the mission of Samantha and her colleagues Terry Virts and Anton Shkaplerov will end 11 June after 199,7 days. Only 8 hours short of 200 days. Wednesday at 16:40, with almost a day in advance, Terry handed over the command of the Space Station to Gennady Padalka.
200 days in space. Credits: ESA/NASA

200 days in space. Credits: ESA/NASA

Thursday is the day of return. It is an early start before they close the hatch behind them once in the Soyuz capsule. This will be at around 8:55 CEST. At this point a series of checks and tests of their return vehicle will last for a few orbits. Around 12:20 CEST, the three astronauts leave Space Station: it is time for the so-called undocking. The Soyuz  “drops its moorings” and starts to fall, moving to a different orbit from the International Space Station. The return journey is effectively nothing more than a fall to the Earth in a controlled manner. After a few orbits, the most important moment comes: the Soyuz turns the engines on and gives the final push to start its deorbit at around 14:51. It then dives into the atmosphere. Soon after, two of the three modules that make up the Soyuz are discarded: the orbital module and the propulsion module have finished their task and are no longer needed. Only the landing module remains, protected by a heat shield. When it enters the more dense layers of the atmosphere, the module will be akin to a comet on fire, surrounded by glowing plasma. About 20 minutes from landing, scheduled for 15:43, the spacecraft manoeuvres to reduce its speed. Inside eight minutes it will slow to 800 km/h. 15 minutes before landing, four parachutes open: first two followed by two more in quick succession slowing the capsule to about 30 km / h. Just a second before landing, four small engines light up, like spaceships in science fiction movies, and slow the speed to impact to about 5 km/h. Despite being a bumpy ride, the astronaut’s is important: to make the reentry softer their seats are moulded to fit them perfectly, like protective nests. Despite this, there is no point in denying it: the return is no stroll in the park. Shocks, tears, decelerations: astronauts spend the last moments of their mission subjected to violent deceleration, rediscovering the meaning of weight. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recounted how he was surprised to feel the weight of his tongue and lips, and that even talking felt different after his months in space. Knowing Samantha, and her communication skills, we are not panicking: she will be able to continue to talk as she did before! Safe journey home! Timeline Times in Central European Summer Time:
  • 8:55 Expedition 43 hatch closing
  • 12:18 Undocking command to open hooks and latches
  • 12:20 Undocking – Hooks open and physical separation of Soyuz TMA-15M
  • 12:23 Separation burn 1, an 8-second burn of the Soyuz engines, .60 m/s
  • 12:24 Separation burn 2, a 30-second burn of the Soyuz engines, 1.45 m/s
  • 14:51 Deorbit burn lasting 4:35, 128 m/s. Soyuz is now around 12 km from the International Space Station at 401.8 km altitude
  • 15:18 Separation of Modules at 140 km altitude
  • Landing site. Credits: NASA

    Landing site. Credits: NASA

    15:26 Maximum loads on the astronauts up to five times normal gravity at 36.5 km altitude
  • 15:28 Command to open parachutes at 10.7 km. Two Pilot Parachutes are first deployed, the second of which extracts the drogue chute, slowing the Soyuz down from a descent rate of 230 m/s to 80 m/s. The Main Parachute is then released, slowing the Soyuz to a 7.2 m/s. The Soyuz descends at an angle of 30 degrees to expel heat, then shifts to a straight vertical descent.
  • 15:43 Touchdown after engine firing to slow the Soyuz down to 1.5 m/s around 80 cm above ground.
Landing site: about 145 km southeast of Dzhezkazgan. Landing will occur approximately 1 hour, 34 minutes before sunset at the landing site in Kazakhstan.    

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Samantha beats ESA astronaut single-duration record

Today at around 17:27 CET ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will break the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight of an ESA astronaut. She was originally planned to return to Earth on 12 May but her Futura mission was extended after a problem with a Progress supply ferry.

The record was held until now by ESA astronaut André Kuipers who spent 193 days in space in 2012 for his PromISSe mission. His mission was also extended after a spacecraft problem. From his blog:

“A leak was found on the Soyuz capsule that was supposed to ferry the Expedition 31 crew up here. So the next Soyuz in line is being prepared quickly. It will not be ready before mid-march so the launch has been delayed by two months. This will delay landing for Dan, Anton and Anatoly. This also has consequences for myself, Don and Oleg. The delay is now six weeks and the official landing date is set for 1 July.”

Neither Samantha or André have the record for the most time an ESA astronaut has spent in space, that record goes to ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter with 350 days spent in space over two missions, 179 on space station Mir in 1995 and 171 on the International Space Station as part of Expedition 2 in 2006.

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Cooking in space at the Restaurant at the end of the universe

Six month have passed already since the beginning the Futura mission and Node 1, our personal “Restaurant at the end of the universe” has witnessed many space meals, with dishes rehydrated or heated in our food warmer. Usually our dishes are ready to eat or at least very easy to assemble: quick and easy! Did I mention already that my favorite dish is the wonderful quinoa salad with mackerel by Stefano Polato, the official chef of the Futura mission and of Outpost42? But the curry chicken with mushrooms and peas is great as well. They are full meals, healthy and delicious! I took with me a pretty good supply of read-to-eat pouches, but I also have the ingredients in separate pouches: it’s possible to assemble them onboard, although it can be quite a challenge in weightlessness. Take a look! [youtube 4exaXdPKS3Y] [youtube gRllv78Gax8] It’s a bit of work, for sure, but I enjoy being able to change the quantities of the different ingredients a bit to vary the overall taste. I simply recreated the recipes of our chef Stefano, because I’m not a very creative cook. But maybe you have some ideas to suggest for my very last week onboard? Maybe a meal according to the principles we’ve been talking about on Outpost42. Here are my favorite ingredients here onboars, some from my bonus food and some from the ISS standard menu. Why don’t you try your recipe at home and send us a picture? Then we can see the difference making them in space. Or, if you’re prefer, you can create the Futura space recipes in your home kitchen. It’s easy, here Stefano showed me how to prepare them. And don’t forget to send us a picture! (On twitter with the hashtag #SpaceFoodAtHome or if you prefer Facebook just post them as a comment to this post). Power bar with Goji, chocolate and spirulina [youtube CYTFooquHjo&index=1&list=PLbyvawxScNbshQN7ZDLEaAW3WO-2sLzb_] Whole red rice with turmeric chicken [youtube qku3aZpnU88&index=3&list=PLbyvawxScNbshQN7ZDLEaAW3WO-2sLzb_] Quinoa salad with mackerel and vegetables [youtube sCRYMrW1e6Y&index=2&list=PLbyvawxScNbshQN7ZDLEaAW3WO-2sLzb_] Samantha

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Training for the worst

Practicing emergencies is necessary so I accept that the volunteer fire department near our home at Hochstadt runs their siren in the evening, even though it excites our 3-year-old daughter just before bedtime. We also need to practice emergencies on the International Space Station in space you cannot phone highly-trained rescue workers to come to the rescue. Astronauts must be able to fend for themselves, extinguish a fire and protect themselves from any fumes. Even radio contact with experts in control centers cannot be assumed to work in a worst-case scenario.

In today’s emergency exercise the control centres and astronauts worked together on a so-called On-Board Training or simply OBT. We had “stage directions” that defined for example that a leak would appear in the Japanese Kibo module through which air would escape.

The alarm sounded on the Space Station with its penetrating noise and the computer screens of our Flight Controller filled up with numerous error messages, proving that the International Space Station had configured itself in emergency mode. The astronauts onboard reported shortly afterwards to Mission Control Houston with the news that they had a pressure drop on the Space Station to contend with. All radio communication between crew and flight controllers began with the words “For the workout exercise:” to ensure that everybody knew it was not a real emergency, but an exercise.

The flight director in Houston declared a “Space Craft Emergency” – of preceded by “for the training exercise”. Sinje Steffen of the STRATOS team at the Columbus Control Centre checked whether Columbus was automatically reconfigured for this Rapid Depress scenario.

The astronauts convened in the meantime 350 km above close to their Soyuz spacecraft. Since the Russian capsules are the Station’s lifeboats, each astronaut has a well-defined place there. They are usually the first assembly point of crew in an emergency. Once there, they decide together on how to proceed based on the scheme “Warning – Gather – Fight”. In our emergency script scenario, the astronauts had about five hours until critical low pressure (designated as T.Res) would be reached – time enough to try to find the leaking module and possibly stop the International Space Station from ‘bleeding out’.

The astronauts followed the well-defined sequence to close various hatches to measure on which side the pressure dropped further. Slowly they were able to find their way closer and closer to the actual leak.

Columbus Flight Director Katja Leuoth and her team was busy keeping up with the falling pressure values: a long list of minimum air pressure certification values exist for all Columbus components – each of these elements had to be switched off before their critical pressure was reached. Today’s commands were “for the training exercise”, so actual commands were not issued and power was not actually switched-off…

The rapid pressure-drop (rapid depress) is one of three major emergency scenarios that are defined for the International Space Station.

Depending on the size of the leak, there are various ways to “clog the hole”: from an oversized bicycle-patch to a plasticine-like material. All sealing is done of course from inside the space station – and is easy: Compared to the vacuum of space the pressure inside the ISS is considerable higher and pushes any seal onto the leak – a clear advantage compared to repairing a bicycle inner tube…

Thomas Uhlig, Columbus Control Centre

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Return of the Dragon

I do not know if Samantha loved to catch butterflies as a child… but I am sure she never dreamt of catching a Dragon with a robotic arm!

That is exactly what is going to happen today: she is in charge of grappling the SpaceX Dragon-6 cargo ship from her favourite spot in the Space Station: the Cupola. It is the first time that this task is been given to an Italian astronaut.  Samantha assisted her NASA colleague Terry Virts for the last SpaceX docking. If you are curious she wrote about it extensively it in her logbook (link).

The Dragon spaceships perform a “stop and go” dance as they approach the Space Station: it’s all about the team play between the crew onboard and the Control Centres on Earth. After many miles travelled this part of its journey is very delicate. Dragon left Earth on Wednesday. Just ten minutes after launch the cargo spaceship reaches its first orbit and from there it starts its slow approach to the Space Station which lasts a couple of days.

Credits: NASA

Credits: NASA

When the spaceship starts to ”see” the Space Station is time for the Control Centres (NASA’s one in Houston and the SpaceX’s one in Hawtorne, USA) to fire the engines and gently push the cargo up to 250 metres from the Station’s docking port.  Now the Dragon’s eyes are important: a radar system (that works with visible-light wavelength) and an infrared camera. The data from its ‘eyes’ are compared and allow the spaceship’s systems to know precisely its position and speed in relation to the Station. Meanwhile, Dragon and the Space Station are communicate via UHF band. From this moment on, the astronauts operate the SpaceX cargo remotely with the support of the Control Centres on the Ground.

The first stop is at 50 metres from the orbital outpost. Once the OK to proceed comes from ground control the spaceship can move closer. From this point the Dragon enters the so-called “Keep-Out Sphere”. Sounds like science-fiction but it is nothing more than a term to make sure even more caution is heeded: nobody wants a Dragon to collide with the Space Station!

The crew will the bring the Dragon spaceship to within 30 metres and then at 10 metres from the Space Station. Stop and ground control (Hi there Major TomJ)… this is where Samantha’s real work starts today: she will grapple the cargo vessel with the Canadarm robotic arm and… tame the Dragon!

Stefano Sandrelli

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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)

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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.

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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:

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