RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 38 - July 2003
  MULTIDIMENSIOAL SPACE  -  Science without gravity

The first manned space flights, from Gagarin to the moon landing by the Apollo missions, symbolised more than anything else man's thirst for adventure. From the 1980s, the much more concentrated human presence in Earth's near space – several hundred astronauts of all nationalities have now made the trip – has concentrated on a primary objective: fundamental research under conditions of weightlessness. 

Newton's law of gravity has heavy implications. None of  the many experiments carried out in laboratories anywhere in the world can escape its grip. Whatever the field of research, whether working with cells, particles or molecules, the pull of gravity is always present and influences every process.

The Dutch doctor André Kuipers is one of the team of European astronauts who will be travelling to the ISS - International Space Station. A specialist in the medical aspects of manned flights, he has been involved in space research since 1991.  ©ESA
The Dutch doctor André Kuipers is one of the team of European astronauts who will be travelling to the ISS - International Space Station. A specialist in the medical aspects of manned flights, he has been involved in space research since 1991.

Virtues of weightlessness
But what happens when this constraint is removed? It was soon realised that space provided a 'weightless laboratory' of considerable interest to researchers. The emerging and fascinating sector of space medicine is just one excellent example of this. By closely monitoring astronauts – the Russians notably holding the record for long stays in space – we have learned a great deal about the changes that can take place in the human metabolism, bone structure, blood circulation, etc.  

Weightless science was soon seen as having the potential to revolutionise a very wide range of research fields, opening up new scientific approaches not only in the life sciences but also in the study of matter – crystallisation, solidification, fluid dynamics, etc.

From Spacelab…
Since 1982, ESA has organised European co-operation in the framework of missions   by US NASA spacecraft which have made 22 trips carrying the Spacelab module designed by ESA and national space agencies. The two successive versions of this space laboratory made it possible to carry out numerous scientific experiments involving many researchers from Europe and elsewhere. 

During this same period, Europeans have been among the crew on more than 40 manned space flights, travelling to the Russian MIR station as well as on board the US Discovery, Columbus and Challenger shuttles. 

…to the European "Corps"
In the process, the European Space Agency has progressively developed its own programme for the preparation of manned flights. In addition to deciding on   the scientific content of missions, ESA recruits and trains the astronauts able to carry out the experiments and acclimatises them to conditions in space. 

In 1998, when Europe was actively involved in building the new International Space Station (see opposite), the decision was taken for ESA to form its own 'permanent corps of European astronauts'. The corps consists of 16 hand-picked individuals, most of them with previous experience in space. They receive intensive training at a logistics base, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne (DE), headed by space 'veteran' Jean-Pierre Haigneré who holds the record for long stays in space with his six months on board the MIR station in 1999.  

The big ISS project
Space mechanics busy assembling the International Space Station (ISS) - artist's impression.  ©ESA
Space mechanics busy assembling the International Space Station (ISS) - artist's impression.

These astronauts are trained to work on the International Space Station (ISS), a joint project involving the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and Brazil. Work on its construction began in 1998 and the first long stay was achieved by three astronauts in October 2000. Eight teams have followed since then and all the station's infrastructures should be assembled and operational next year.

Europe is contributing approximately 8% of the total cost of building the station, essentially funding two elements.

The first is the design and development of the Colombus laboratory, due to be launched into space in 2004. This pressurised manned module is fully equipped to carry out experiments in the field of materials research, fluid dynamics and the life sciences, etc. 

The astronaut Jean-François Clervoy during tests carried out on the European designed prototype Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the 'taxi' of the future linking the ISS to Earth.  ©ESA
The astronaut Jean-François Clervoy during tests carried out on the European designed prototype Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the 'taxi' of the future linking the ISS to Earth.

The second aims to develop the innovative concept of the 'Automated Transfer Vehicle' (ATV). This unmanned cargo vehicle, with a capacity of between six and seven tonnes and launched by Ariane rockets, is able to dock at the station, guided by ground control and the team on board the ISS. The ATV will supply the ISS with fuel, compressed air, food and scientific equipment. It will also be able to make corrections to the station's trajectory before leaving with a cargo of waste. 

'Automatic servicing' missions of this kind represent considerable progress in terms of space services. The usefulness of the ATV is all the more pertinent in the light of the disaster which struck the Columbus shuttle as it returned to Earth. This was one of the key links with the ISS and the station's programme is now fully dependent, for an unknown period, on the availability of the Russian Soyouz spacecraft – making the ATV’s entry into service a priority. The first flight tests are planned for later this year. 

  Space-aided teaching  
  Space, and manned flights in particular, have a unique fascination for man – especially for young people. Explaining the achievements and implications of man's exploits in space to children, adolescents and university students is therefore a formidable tool in catalysing their interest in science. This is especially true at a time when teaching the complexities of science is becoming increasingly difficult.

Hence the decision to set up two educational programmes in the framework of European co-operation on the International Space Station. Launched during the   Teach Space 2001 conference, which gave rise to a whole series of teaching projects or modules, the first is designed for primary and secondary school teachers within the ISS Educator's Community, a network for the exchange of experience.

The Education Programme for Research on the ISS, on the other hand, is intended for university students. It includes many initiatives, such as a competition to present projects linked to research in space, the carrying out of real experiments under microgravity during parabolic flights, visits to European space technology centres, and participation in the simulation of experiments carried out on the ISS. 

To find out more [ http://www.esa.int/export/esaHS/education.html ]


  Treating immobility  
Graphic element

The experience of long stays in space has shown that life under conditions of weightlessness has significant physiological effects on the bones, muscles and cardiovascular, immune and hormonal systems. The study of these effects – and possible countermeasures – has given rise to an intense 'space' medicine activity which is not without significance for progress in 'terrestrial' medicine. 

The French Space Agency at the CNES (Centre national d'études spatiales) decided therefore to set up an Institute for Space Physiology and Medicine (Medes) in Toulouse which carries out in-depth research in this field. One of the analysis techniques involves carrying out experiments on 'prolonged periods of bed rest': in a prone position, with the head tilted at an angle of less than 6° compared with the feet, the human body experiences effects very comparable to those caused by weightlessness. In 2001 and 2002, three groups of 28 volunteers took part in a trial which involved being confined to bed for 90 days – naturally this is carried out under close medical supervision and with psychological assistance. Phenomena of muscular atrophy and bone loss were studied during these trials, together with the treatment which could correct it.

The results are crucially important for the development of manned space flights involving long periods of confinement, such as would be the case for any interplanetary craft travelling to Mars, for example – a possibility under serious scrutiny by the Aurora [ http://ec.europa.eu/research/rtdinfo/38/01/article_155_en.html ] project.

They also have major consequences for medicine in general, as correcting the effects of long periods confined to bed is a major clinical problem for our hospitals. Two research projects are being supported by the European Union and coordinated by Medes, one on tomographic instrumentation with which to assess the quality of the bone system (Advanced detection of bone quality or ADOQ project) and the other a study of osteoporosis pathologies (European research in space and terrestrial osteoporosis or ERISTO project).

To find out more [ http://www.medes.fr/ ]


  Manipulating matter  
Frank De Winne
Frank De Winne
Together with biological experiments, materials science is one of the key fields of research under weightlessness – or, to be more precise, under conditions of microgravity – and the subject of many experiments carried out during manned flights. It is a field which will feature prominently in the activities of the European research laboratory Columbus, attached to the ISS.  

All areas of industry are forever seeking new materials. Aeronautics and automobile construction, in particular, are always looking for ways to optimise the resistance, safety and economy of vehicle engines and infrastructures. They require light compounds, from high-performance ceramics to innovative alloys containing metals such as nickel, aluminium, magnesium and titanium.

Microgravity research is also an excellent field of experimentation for developing the crystalline materials needed by the electronics or telecommunications components industry as well as by instrumentation and medical prostheses, to cite just a couple of examples from the many applications in numerous sectors. 

In this respect, the space laboratory is an alchemist's dream. It makes it possible to carry out experiments never done before on the interference between the gaseous/liquid/solid states, the development of forms of crystallisation, and the control of thermodynamic processes, giving scientists a whole 'palette' from which to make the 'compositions' of their choice.  

To find out more [ http://www.esa.int/export/esaHS/research.html ]


  Bullet The ESA and NASA sites

Bullet Brochure on manned flights [ http://ravel.esrin.esa.it/docs/eac10years.pdf" target="_blank ]