Home, sweet orbital home. ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, along with his Soyuz MS-13 crewmates – NASA astronaut Drew Morgan and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov – have now entered the International Space Station to the delight of current Space Station commander Oleg Ochivin and NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague.

The trio’s arrival marks the start of Expedition 60 and the beginning of Luca’s second space mission known as ‘Beyond’.

The Soyuz MS-13 was launched to the Space Station from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 18:28 CEST on Saturday 20 July 2019. This date coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo lunar landing – a momentous occasion for human spaceflight.

Luca, Drew and Alexander flew for six hours and orbited Earth four times before docking to the Space Station’s Zvezda service module at 00:48 CEST on Sunday 21 July. After docking, crew members conducted thorough checks of the seals to confirm the integrity of the docking connection before the hatches were opened and the Soyuz crew were welcomed onboard at 03:04 CEST.

Over the next six months, Luca will support more than 50 European experiments as well as 200 international experiments onboard the orbital outpost. These include investigations into how aspects of the human body are affected by microgravity and how astronauts could control robots remotely during lunar exploration.

When Alexei Ovchinin departs the Space Station at the end of Expedition 60, Luca will also take on the role of Space Station commander for Expedition 61. This is the third time a European astronaut and the first time an ESA astronaut from Italy has held this position. Luca will follow ESA astronauts Frank De Winne (2009) and Alexander Gerst (2018) when he takes command later this year.

Bringing the Moon into focus

Launching 50 years after the first Apollo Moon landing, it is fitting that Luca will work on experiments designed to aid the future of space exploration.

These experiments include BioRock, which aims to help scientists understand whether microbes used to ‘biomine’ on Earth could also work on other planetary bodies, and to examine how communities of microorganisms grow on rocks in space.

Microscopic image of one three microbes chosen for the BioRock experiment. UK Centre for Astrobiology/University of Edinburgh–R.Santomartino

Luca will test and operate ESA’s Life Support Rack, designed to recycle carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen as part of ESA’s goal to enable astronauts to live independently from Earth on a sustainable basis. He will also operate an Earth-based rover from the International Space Station testing remote operations that could be applied on the Moon.

Results from these experiments will support ESA’s contribution to the lunar Gateway and the Heracles mission to the Moon in ongoing work with international partners.

Stepping into space

In addition to the science he will carry out onboard, Luca has also been preparing to step out into space, working with teams on the ground to develop new procedures and tools to repair the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02).

Installed outside the Space Station in 2011, AMS-02 is a particle physics detector collecting cosmic rays to help scientists understand dark matter. It was initially only meant to operate in space for three years, but it was so successful in its mission that its life has been extended. To enable this to happen, three of its four cooling pumps require repair in a challenging spacewalk.

Follow the mission

We’ll be keeping you updated throughout Luca’s Beyond mission right here on the blog as well as on Twitter at @esaspaceflight. You can also follow Luca on Twitter and Facebook and we’ll also be taking you behind the scenes in conversation with ESA experts on our new podcast ESA Explores.

Find the ESA Explores podcast series wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe to hear all the latest from the mission.