ISS is setting up its research scope on longer space missions

Detect harmful radiation, pilot a rover module, learn better sleep and body care: astronauts on the International Space Station prepare for future missions even further afield – from the Moon to, sometime, Mars.

The latest arrival of four more astronauts to the ISS, due to an explosion on a SpaceX rocket from Florida on Thursday, will open the door for new experiments aimed at decorating humans for long-distance space travel.

“We are testing technologies for research,” said Remi Canton, director of Cadmos, the division of the National Center for Space Studies of France (CNES) undertaking 12 new experiments.

Whether it’s people revisiting the Moon for the first time since 1972 or possibly traveling to the Red Planet, the challenges are overwhelming.

First, how can engineers ensure that astronauts and their equipment are protected from the flow of particles ejected by solar storms and cosmic rays?

Crews on the ISS receive some protection against the Earth’s magnetic shield.

Venture further into space, and they become sitting ducks exposed to heavily loaded items.

“It’s a really big problem for space exploration,” Canton said.

“You have to make sure they didn’t get a lethal dose before they even walked on Mars or stayed on the Moon for too long.”

Before scientists can come up with ways to protect their spacecraft, they must accurately measure against what they oppose.

This is the goal of the Lumina experiment, which uses a device based on optical fibers soaked in phosphorus to measure the amount of radiation through it.

“When it radiates, it darkens very quickly,” explained Sylvain Girard, a researcher at the Hubert Curien laboratory and coordinator of the experiment.

By measuring the speed of dimming and comparing this with the intensity of a light signal injected into one end of the device, scientists can accurately deduce the received dose of radiation.

It will allow researchers to measure radiation in real time, with sufficient sensitivity to detect a sudden variation such as that given by a solar storm.

These unpredictable events push a flow of heavily loaded and harmful particles into space.

“It’s like a wave, and it takes about an hour to swell before it reaches its maximum current,” said Nicolas Balcon, a radio engineer at CNES.

During a long space trip, “if we detect a sudden increase, we could save the electronics, get an astronaut back into the ship, or protect them in shelters that mitigate any radiation forces,” he added.

To work for a long time in the dangerous environment of space, future travelers to the Moon further away will also have to master a dishwasher.

This will include piloting a rover on the surface of the Moon from a station orbiting the satellite, according to Canton.

The Pilot experiment will explore how astronauts “use tactile and visual information at their disposal” to better design future pilot sites, he said.

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, once he arrives at the ISS, will wear a virtual reality helmet combined with portable devices “because agility and refined mobility skills are really influenced by weightlessness,” Canton added.

“You can’t feel the weight of your arms or the forces they’re exerting.”

Pesquet will have to train himself to handle a robotic arm tasked with capturing a virtual vehicle.

The helmet will also be used for the Immersive Exercise experiment, which will engage astronauts in a virtual environment while pedaling on CEVIS, the training bike that ISS residents use to limit the muscle loss that comes with sustained weight loss.

And the experiments don’t end when astronauts finish their day. They will put on a headband during sleep to give researchers insights into the different phases of sleep “to understand how enclosure and microgravity affect its quality,” Canton said.