The International Space Station was again the stage for novel European science and routine operations during the first half of August. Plenty of action in the form of bubbles and sounds added to the mix in the run-up to a spacewalk and the comings and goings of visiting vehicles.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano installed the Multiscale Boiling experiment, known affectionately as Rubi, in its new home in Europe’s Columbus laboratory. It took Luca a few hours to fit the container, the size of a large shoebox, inside the Fluid Science Laboratory.

A lot of science will take place in there – Rubi will generate bubbles under controlled conditions using a special heater to expand our knowledge of the boiling process. Larger bubbles in slow motion will allow scientists to observe and measure effects that are too fast and too small on Earth.

With this insight and more accurate calculations of the boiling process, products such as laptops can be improved and made more compact. 

Can you hear me?

The Space Station is a labyrinth of modules running 24/7, and many astronauts have remarked upon the incessant hum that comes from living in a large spacecraft. Scientists worry that this non-stop buzz might affect the hearing of the astronauts.

Luca and NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan lent their ears to the first session of the Acoustic Diagnostics experiment. Once a month, headphones on, the astronauts will listen to sounds as a small device records the response of their inner ears.   

Detecting hearing loss in space will both help take care of astronauts’ health during long missions and improve a device for testing hearing more accurately on Earth in any noisy environment.

Luca was not only subjected to sounds on Station, he also beamed his own tunes from space to Ibiza, in Spain. The European astronaut rocked a cruise party with the first ever DJ set directly from the International Space Station’s Columbus module. Tune in and listen to his message about music – the international language – here.

The Italian astronaut also connected with Sweden in a live call last week during the Stockholm Culture Festival. The event was followed by the world premiere of the multimedia experience ‘Space Station Earth’, a new live show featuring images shot by astronauts set to original music by composer Ilan Eshkeri and presented to the audience with the latest audio-visual techniques.

Human, all too human – in space

As we get older, the way protein accumulates in our brain is thought to cling together in larger threads, depriving us of memories and a sharp brain. The possibility that astronauts have a higher propensity to develop neurodegenerative diseases is the focus of the Amyloid Aggregation experiment.

Amyloids are protein aggregations associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Luca carefully manipulated a set of tiny tubes with different incubation times. Upon completion of the experiment, the whole kit will remain frozen at minus 80°C until it is shipped back to Earth on the SpaceX Dragon vehicle on 27 August.

Protein aggregation in space. ESA/NASA.

Disrupted time perception, altered eye-hand coordination and loss of body mass are some of the effects that life in space has on the human body. Both Luca and Andrew ran sessions of the Time, Grip and Grasp experiments to help scientists understand how our brain copes with microgravity.

Another new experiment for Space Station research is NutrISS. During five consecutive days, Luca logged his nutritional intake and assessed any changes in his body weight, fat mass and fat-free mass in an app called Everywear. Medical teams on Earth will use it to limit bone and muscle loss in space.

Dexterity in space. ESA/NASA.


Little creatures

Keeping germs at bay on the International Space Station is the focus of the Matiss-2 experiment. For nearly a year, sample holders have been exposed in the Columbus module, letting the air flow through and collect any bacteria floating past.

Luca removed one of the holders and prepared it for download to Earth, where scientists will assess the antibacterial properties of five advanced materials that could stop bacteria from settling and growing on the surface. Which one will work best?

Bacteria keep growing in a controlled way inside the Columbus module. The International Space Station is hosting some of the smallest miners in the universe: microbes. Luca unleashed biofilm-forming microbes for incubation in the Kubik experiment container. The BioRock experiment grows different species on basalt slides for 21 days under microgravity, Earth’s gravity and martian gravity.

Bacteria were uploaded in a desiccated, dormant state and re-hydrated on board. Scientists want to learn how altered states of gravity affect the interaction of microbes with rock, and how the little miners could help astronauts on future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Installing experiments in Kubik. ESA/NASA.

The up, down and out

The International Space Station raised its orbit to a maximum of 428 km above Earth’s surface on 15 August.

The Russian Progress spacecraft fired its thrusters for nearly 20 minutes, putting the Station on the right path for the rendezvous and docking of another unmanned vehicle launching this Wednesday. The Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft will take off from Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, in a test flight that features a new booster.

With the Cygnus spacecraft gone last weekend, cosmonauts are busy unloading cargo from the latest visiting vehicle to arrive, Progress 73.

NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan continue to prepare their spacesuits, configure tools and review protocols for the fifth spacewalk of the year. The duo will route cables and configure hardware to install the International Docking Adapter-3 on top of the Station’s Harmony module.

Learn more about the science of Luca’s mission Beyond and what goes on behind the science to help research run smoothly in space in this month’s episode of the ESA Explores podcast. You can listen to the podcast via all major podcast platforms including Spotify, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Podbean and Soundcloud.