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Week in images: 11 - 15 January 2021
Discover our week through the lens
Did you know that in microgravity we are preparing one of the most promising fuels for the future?
Microgravity is helping to find answers and models to refine the processes needed to efficiently burn solid fuel like iron dust. Are we witnessing the raise of a new "Iron Age"? Could we use metal powders instead of petrol to fuel our cars?
Solid fuels are used for burning a match, lighting a sparkler on New Year's Eve as well as the fuel inside the boosters of Ariane and of other rockets. But metals such as iron can also burn, in powder form, and are entirely smokeless and carbon free.
Metals could be produced using clean energy, such as from solar cells or wind turbines. That electricity is stored as chemical energy in the metal powder at energy densities that are competitive with fossil fuels. This has the potential to reduce greenhouse gasses emission globally, but a barrier to implementing this technology is the development of combustion systems that can efficiently burn the metal fuels, which requires a solid understanding of their combustion physics.
To understand the physics of metal fuel combustion, a cluster of iron powder needs to be suspended for about 30 seconds, the time needed to observe and study how a flame propagates. Researchers used sounding rockets and parabolic flights to run experiments in weightlessness and to validate existing models, yielding promising results.
The density of iron particles and the composition of gases in the combustion chamber are essential parameters, like in a petrol car engine. Microgravity allows for the study of the laws of flame propagation, to optimise parameters in industrial burner designs, and reduce impact on the environment.
These space experiments also help us understand similar phenomena, such as the spreading of contagious microbes and forest fires.
In a vote of confidence for the technique a student team at TU Eindhoven in The Netherlands worked with industrial partners to design a metal combustion facility now installed at Swinkels Family Brewers, subsidised by the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, used to produce steam for the brewing process.
The step to space research is closer than you might think. Get involved with spaceflight research via www.esa.int/spaceflightAO. Find out about our commercial partnerships and opportunities in human and robotic exploration via www.esa.int/explorationpartners to run your research in microgravity as well.
ESA Kids app now available
A replay of our start-of-year press conference with ESA Director General Jan Wörner, future Director General Josef Aschbacher and other ESA Directors, held online on Thursday, 14 January 2021.
They looked ahead at Europe's space activities in 2021 and answered questions from media. Highlights in 2021 include two ESA astronauts flying to the International Space Station, the new James Webb Space Telescope being launched from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and the launch of NASA’s first Artemis mission, in a programme that will take humans to the Moon powered by ESA’s European Service Module.
2021 is taking off with ESA's new rocket merchandise
Join our start-of-year press conference with ESA Director General Jan Wörner and future Director General Josef Aschbacher plus other ESA Directors when they meet online on Thursday, 14 January 2021. The event starts at 09:30 GMT / 10:30 CET. Watch live on #ESAwebTV.
The month of December comes with holidays for many, but for the International Space Station and mission controls around the world, science never rests.
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).
Using information from ESA’s Swarm satellite constellation, scientists have made a discovery about how energy generated by electrically-charged particles in the solar wind flows into Earth’s atmosphere – surprisingly, more of it heads towards the magnetic north pole than towards the magnetic south pole.
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.
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.