New European rack
Wed, 08 Jul 2020 15:18:00 +0200
After a successful launch aboard the Japanese HTV9 cargo vehicle, a new experiment facility was recently installed in the European laboratory Columbus as part of a comprehensive upgrade of Europe’s International Space Station module.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley (imaged above) manoeuvred the fridge-sized European Drawer Rack Mark 2(EDR2) to its new position. EDR2 is designed to run in parallel with the original European Drawer Rack, providing even greater opportunities for science in space.
A feat that would be much more difficult on Earth, installing EDR-2 in weightlessness was not exactly physically taxing, but required careful manoeuvring in the limited space. Watch a video of the installation.
EDR2 is a flexible experiment facility, able to support a wide range of experiments and technology demonstrators. It supports experiments by providing power, data communication, cooling and nitrogen, and venting waste gasses. The rack is designed to accommodate many types of instruments with different dimensions and masses. EDR2 can even support experiments nearby but not inside the experiment rack, so long as these are hosted inside the Columbus cabin.
The first three experiments planned for installation in EDR-2 include a metal 3D printer, an instrument investigating granular materials (VIP-GRAN) and a facility looking into heat transfer.
ESA intends to use the 3D printer to produce metal parts through additive manufacturing – a process considered the next important step in building structures and parts in space.
The VIP-GRAN experiment will investigate how particles behave in microgravity to understand the underlying physics in detail. This involves looking at how particles jam together as they flow through small openings.
The Heat Transfer Host experiment will continue ESA’s investigations into convection – how heat is transferred through air and liquids.
EDR-2 arrived to the International Space Station on 20 May on a Japanese HTV-9 cargo vehicle and took the place of the European Transport Carrier (ETC); having served its time as a workbench and stowage facility, ETC was transferred to the HTV 9 spacecraft and will now be trashed.
The EDR-2 and most of its experiments and technology demonstrators will be operated from CADMOS, the French User Support Operations Centre located in Toulouse, France.
Thu, 02 Jul 2020 13:41:00 +0200
Strange times meet strange clouds. Noctilucent or ‘night shining’ clouds (NLC) are captured over Knowlton Church in Dorset, UK, by astrophotographer Ollie Taylor in the early hours of 22 June.
A summer phenomenon, these rare clouds are visible when the Sun is below the viewer’s horizon, shining light on these tenuous wisps. First mentioned in 1885, just two years after the Krakatoa volcanic eruption, one of the most destructive on record, they were once considered a rare meteorological phenomenon. The clouds have been sited more frequently over the past few years, linked by many to increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Thanks to a dedicated network of NLC trackers, including live space weather updates, Czech-based NLC webcam observations and a Facebook group, Ollie got a great night’s worth of photography.
“It was an excellent night of shooting, arriving at location in the evening already greeted by noctilucent clouds better than I had previously seen in the south of England,” says Ollie.
Taken between 2 and 2:50am, the clouds lend a ghostly glow to the 12th century church in the middle of a Neolithic henge monument. “The electric blue complemented the misty landscape and eerie structure,” Ollie says of this picture-perfect moment.
But what exactly is a noctilucent cloud?
NLCs form in the mesosphere, the upper and more complex part of Earth’s atmosphere. While the lower atmosphere warms during this period, atmospheric circulation pushes air upwards, where it expands and cools. This means the mesosphere is cold enough for water vapour to freeze into clouds of ice crystals that form on meteoric dust and other particles found at the so called edge of space.
The rarefied atmosphere at these altitudes is electrically charged and some of these charges are transferred to the ice crystals, creating a so-called dusty plasma in the region.
Considered the fourth state of matter, plasma – or electrically charged gas – is ubiquitous in the universe. In order to study dusty plasmas, scientists have taken plasma research to low Earth orbit, where weightlessness allows particles to be suspended and more easily studied.
The Plasma Kristall-4 experiment, a joint European-Russian endeavour since 2006, has just run its 10th campaign on the International Space Station. The recipe is simple: apply electrical current to create a plasma-filled tube and coax dust particles to behave like atoms and form three-dimensional crystal structures. By adjusting the voltage across the experiment chamber, scientists can tailor their interactions and observe each particle as if in slow motion. Using PK-4, researchers across the world can follow how matter melts, how waves spread in fluids and how flows change at the atomic level.
A team of scientists has already made use of the technical knowhow gained from developing the ISS experiment, to build plasma devices that disinfect wounds at room temperature. This revolution in healthcare has many practical applications, from food hygiene to treatment of skin diseases, water purification and even neutralising bad odours.
As for these noctilucent clouds, they are visible from Earth and also in space. ESA astronauts Luca Parmitano and Tim Peake also took pictures of the clouds during their missions on board the International Space Station.