A European in space – Thomas Pesquet in May

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Science & Exploration

04/06/2021
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With ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet in space for his first full month, let’s look at what he has been doing on the International Space Station in May.

Thomas grasping in VR space for science

Thomas’s first large-scale European experiment was a familiar one: he set up the Grasp and Grip equipment during his Proxima mission in 2017 and got the hardware ready for subjects to test how they judge distances when reaching for objects. Four years on – and many test subjects later – he ran the experiment himself by wearing a virtual reality headset and grasping objects while motion trackers recorded his arm movement and speed.

The next day Thomas did a session on Myotones together with NASA astronaut Megan MacArthur. This experiment is looking at muscle tone in space and how it changes during a mission. A device touches their muscles and records how it reacts. The astronauts also took blood draws and ultrasound measurements for the experiment the research could help us understand why muscles age the way they do.

Thomas storing samples in MELFI

Thomas took regular samples of his body and stored them in the European –80°C freezers for later analysis. This less glamorous part of being an astronaut is needed to chart health in general but also for research; the batch includes stool samples, blood samples, saliva and urine. The blood samples often go in a centrifuge before storage to separate the cells, and the centrifuge itself requires upkeep.

Thomas repairing Space Station exercise bike

Thomas repaired the Station’s exercise bike, which had a problem with its ergometer, and helped Megan with NASA’s SUBSA experiment that is casting metal alloys in space to observe the crystals that form, with hopes of developing better casting techniques on Earth. A similar ESA experiment observing crystal formation ran in May with different alloys in the Columbus laboratory.

Thomas spent some time servicing the toilet and maintenance on pumps in the first week of May, and worked on the educational Astro Pi initiative teaching schoolchildren to code with computers.

Thomas on Space Station exercise bike

The second week of May started with Cygnus cargo operations and clearing up to access the nanoracks airlock, as well as an educational experiment for NASA and safety drills for the whole Space Station crew. Thomas started preparing for the arrival of the 22nd Dragon cargo spacecraft and did the regular six-month and yearly maintenance of the Station’s treadmill as well as filling in a survey on the acoustics in the Station.

Thomas took part in the CNES Dreams experiment that is looking at astronauts’ sleep. It uses a novel headband to study how sleep is influenced by living in weightlessness and isolation. Using small ECG sensors, the device collected neuroscientific data while Thomas slept. These data will be analysed by researchers to help prepare for long missions to the Moon and Mars.

In the third week of May, Thomas started preparing equipment for the spacewalks that are planned in June to upgrade the Space Station’s solar panels. This includes checking batteries and charging them and preparing the EMU suits they will wear. This is quick to summarise but doing the work takes time and must be done meticulously, as nobody wants an empty battery when floating through the vacuum of space. The solar panels themselves will be launched on the SpaceX Dragon this week. He also did maintenance on the air conditioning in the crew quarters.

Thomas and Megan in BEAM module

On Wednesday, Thomas did a session on the ESA/CNES experiment Time that is charting reaction times and perception of time in space, to test if they decrease during spaceflight. On Friday, the crew entered the BEAM module that is usually closed off and used for long-term storage. Thomas was tasked with storage duties and organised the inflatable module’s items. 

More toilet maintenance in the last week of May for Thomas and then on to some research, growing protein crystals for NASA. By growing these proteins in space, researchers can create the ‘perfect’ shape without gravity influencing the end result. The structure of these proteins is important because it defines how protein-based medicine is absorbed by our bodies, and tweaking the structure could allow for optimal administration of this new generation of medicine.

Time experiment infographics

The week finished with more work on metal casting, a full day of Myotones, more spacewalk preparations, medical drills and, on Wednesday, Thomas set up the new French Pilote experiment and did the first session that will evaluate a new way of providing tactile and visual feedback to astronauts when operating robots. A virtual reality headset and a haptic joystick could recreate the feeling of pressure and touch when tele-operating a robotic arm. The results from Pilote will improve the workspace on the Space Station and future spacecraft for lunar and martian missions, where astronauts in orbit could operate rovers on the surface.

This monthly overview focused only on Thomas’s activities and does not mention the daily planning conferences and the two hours of daily exercise, cleaning duties and more, alongside sharing space with six other astronauts on the Space Station. Of course, many experiments run automatically in the background, meaning the science literally never stops in space.

Pilote timelapse

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