European glovebox offers experiment opportunities
The prime objective of the Odissea mission from a European perspective is to perform a series of 23 experiments in the field of life and physical sciences, and education.
“The science investigations represent a range of different disciplines and applications, all with the ultimate aim of enhancing life on Earth,” said ESA's Odissea mission scientist Dr Marc Heppener.
“All of the mission’s experiments have been through ESA’s selection procedures. Decisions on which ones to include were based on their scientific value and the availability of appropriate research facilities.
“The fact that all of the 23 experiments selected passed the pre-flight testing procedures is more than we originally expected, and can be seen as a major achievement by all the international participants.”
Odissea will be the third Russian taxi flight in which a European astronaut participates, and the list of proposed experiments is quite significant and longer than for the previous Andromède and Marco Polo missions.
Microgravity Science Glovebox
This is largely due to the presence now on board the Space Station of the European-designed and developed Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), which will be used during the Odissea mission to conduct four physical science experiments.
The list of candidate experiments was compiled after discussions between ESA and the Belgian authorities in the Life and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee (LPSAC). Although in most of the experiments a Belgian scientist is a member of the experiment team, a significant number of scientists from other European countries are also involved.
The MSG provides an enclosed and sealed work volume fitted with lighting, mechanical, electrical, data, gas and vacuum connections, and thermal control for the operation of experiments. It can also be used for minor repairs and servicing of hardware that requires a controlled or enclosed working environment.
The inside is accessible through built-in gloves which isolate the experiment from the Space Station’s environment and the operator. The MSG can operate in open mode, with air circulating from the inside to the Space Station cabin, or in closed mode, with air circulating within the MSG only.
In addition, it has the capability to maintain an inert atmosphere using dry nitrogen, such that the oxygen volume is kept equal to or less than 10 percent.
Physical science experiments
The four physical science experiments to be carried out in the MSG during the Odissea mission are: COSMIC (combustion synthesis under microgravity conditions), ProMISS (protein crystal growth monitoring by digital holographic microscope), NANOSLAB (the study of aggregation mechanisms and kinetics of zeolite particles) and DCCO (the measurement of diffusion coefficients in crude oil).
Although all are technical and complicated, they actually have interesting and relevant implications in areas of science and commercial technology on Earth.
COSMIC will be investigating the influence of gravity on exothermic (combustion) reactions at very high temperatures, typically 1000 to 2000 C. Such reactions are able to combine metals and non-metals to produce a wide variety of advanced materials such as ceramics, inter-metallics and metal matrix composites.
In this experiment titanium, aluminium and boron powders are combined in different ratios and pressed into cylindrical pellets. De Winne will initiate the chemical reaction for each pellet sample by activating a heated coil which acts as an intensive heat source. As the material is ignited the chemical reaction produces a combustion wave that self-propagates through the pellet.
COSMIC will carry six pellets that will be reacted during the Odissea mission and brought back to Earth on a later Shuttle flight. Scientists will also have access to real-time video data and temperature measurements downlinked from the Space Station.
Comparing the microgravity results with those from an identical run of experiments on the ground allows scientists to determine exactly what influence gravity has and thereby apply this knowledge to improve manufacturing processes on Earth.
Such information will give scientists a more fundamental understanding of the physical and chemical processes involved and allow them to develop strategies for controlling Earth-based materials processing. These high temperature advanced materials could be used to make turbine blades for jet engines or bio-compatible medical implants.
The outcome of the DCCO experiment is already of interest to a number of major oil companies because it will provide information that will ultimately help predict more accurately the commercial potential of new oil reservoirs.
So, although important as a science experiment in its own right, the possibility of bringing a direct benefit to the worldwide oil industry is of major significance.
Nine different mixtures of the same compounds – which are chemical representations of crude oil chemical families – will be used to measure the way that different organic compounds diffuse into each other.
Two oils are put into contact with each other and the diffusion process is monitored. An interferometer is used to measure the change in refractive index according to the concentration of the sample. Such measurements cannot be done with a high degree of accuracy on Earth because of gravity-driven buoyancy.
ProMISS is a stand-alone experiment but complements the Granada Crystallisation Facility (GCF) that will be operating on board the Space Station in parallel.
The experiment makes use of an already proved scientific technique called ‘counter diffusion’ which involves protein solutions in capillaries. Crystallisation is triggered by allowing the precipitating solution to diffuse along them.
The physical parameters that are driving the crystallisation have to be adequately measured by non-invasive optical techniques and so the process will be recorded by a digital holographic microscope.
Although the main analysis takes place on the ground once the samples are returned to the laboratory, the microscope will allow ProMISS scientists to glimpse in real-time the progress of their experiments. While ProMISS will investigate a few sample materials in six reactors, GCF will include some 138 individual experiments inside 23 reactors.
The materials – Silicate-1 and ZSM-5 being used for NANOSLAB – play important roles in industrial applications. Understanding the effects of convection and sedimentation on these materials are important steps in optimising existing processes on Earth and allowing the design of specifically tailored materials. Another zeolite experiment, ZEOGRID, will also be performed in parallel in the Russian segment.
The data will be obtained by performing the experiments in space under controlled conditions and scientists want to see how the nanoscopic particles – measuring 1000 millionth of a metre – organise themselves and aggregate into highly intricate 3D structures.
The same experiment will also be done in ground laboratories so that a comparative analysis can be carried out, and X-ray diffraction methods will be used to assess size distribution and structure.
Applications back on Earth
Practical applications of this research include molecular sieves and ion exchangers, the latter a technique for softening hard water. They can also be used in the petro-chemical industry as catalysts for speeding up chemical reactions.
De Winne will also participate in a number of medical experiments which will include studies of the human brain, sleep-wake activity and cardiovascular function. There are also several human physiology experiments that involve purely pre-and post-flight tests.
On the education side, the international working group, ARISS (Amateur Radio onboard ISS), has set up amateur satellite stations that will allow Belgian school pupils to put questions to De Winne and receive his answers direct from orbit. In addition, educational video material – mainly simple physical phenomena demonstrations – will be downloaded to several schools in Europe.
Last update: 31 October 2002