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ESA Human and Robotic Exploration
  1. Asteroids vs. microbes Image: Asteroids vs. microbes
  2. Bubbles made in space

    The month of December comes with holidays for many, but for the International Space Station and mission controls around the world, science never rests.

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    Prepping for a spacewalk typically means diving underwater to rehearse and fine-tune operations.

    In 2016, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst performed such an underwater rehearsal for the Colka high speed radio, the brown box imaged above, that will be installed this month on the International Space Station.

    NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover will integrate the small fridge-sized device outside the European Columbus module during a spacewalk scheduled this year. ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be at NASA’s mission control directing the spacewalkers as Capcom. The Columbus Ka-band terminal, nicknamed ‘Colka’, will enable faster communication with Europe.

    Orbiting the planet every 90 minutes means the Space Station is constantly making and breaking short links with ground stations on Earth as it passes over them at a height of 400 km.

    With Colka, a European telecommunications satellite in geostationary orbit can pick up data sent from the Columbus module. This satellite is part of the European Data Relay System and will be able to directly relay the signals from Columbus to European soil via a ground station in Harwell, in the UK.

    The current data relay system routes via USA, which results in longer data transfer times. The Colka upgrade will ensure faster communications between Columbus and Europe, speeds of up to 50 Mbit/s for downlink and up to 2 Mbit/s for uplink. This will allow astronauts and researchers to benefit from a direct link with Europe at home broadband speeds – delivering a whole family’s worth of video streaming and data for science and communications.

    Colka will be installed just weeks after the announcement that Europe will start building a communications module in support of the Gateway, the next spaceship to be assembled and operated in the vicinity of the Moon by International Space Station partners. The ESPRIT High-speed Lunar Communication System will be launched on NASA’s Gateway living quarters, in 2024.

    As humankind ventures farther from Earth and goes forward to the Moon, a robust communications infrastructure is necessary for the lunar economy and to return knowledge and benefits to Earth. ESA is working on this with the Moonlight project, a system for lunar telecommunications and navigation to reduce design complexity, liberating missions to concentrate on their core activities.

    ColKa was designed and built by British and Italian companies, using products from Belgium, Canada, France, Germany and Norway, some of which have been qualified under the ESA’s programme of Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES).

  4. Gateway

    ESA signed a contract today with Thales Alenia Space to start building the European module for the lunar Gateway that will provide the new human exploration facility with communications and refuelling.

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    NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins performs the Grasp experiment in the Columbus module of the International Space Station ahead of the New Year. The experiment studies how the central nervous system, specifically hand-eye coordination, adapts to microgravity.

    Grasp stands for Gravitational References for Sensimotor Performance and seeks to better understand how the central nervous system integrates information from different senses, such as sight, sound and touch, to coordinate hand movements and determine what role gravity plays.

    How does the experiment work? Mike dons virtual reality (VR) gear that is coupled with a laptop and driven by an audio/graphics system. The VR headset simulates a series of tasks for the him, while a 3D motion tracker updates the display in real time in response to his hand, body and arm movements. Measurements are taken on ground and during spaceflight.

    ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet was the first to use the VR gear to perform the experiment during his 2016 mission. ESA astronauts Alexander Gerst and Luca Parmitano followed suit during their respective missions. Watch a video of Alexander performing the experiment.

    Researchers suspect that, on Earth, the brain uses gravity as a reference. When reaching for an object, the brain uses visual clues as well as how your shoulder muscles counteract the downward force of gravity to keep your arm straight to calculate the distance between your hand and the object.

    However, the sensation of floating for months on end is something our brains did not have to deal with until last century. Seeing how they adapt to this environment offers valuable insight.

    Spearheaded by researchers at French national space agency CNES, the study helps us identify the workings of the vestibular system that keeps our balance, and how it connects to the other sensory organs. In other words, Grasp investigates the physiology behind hand-eye coordination, shedding light on how to treat patients showing a loss of vestibular function on Earth.

    For astronauts, the research will be useful during spacewalks, where coordination in weightlessness with few visual clues is vital.