No more PASTA for Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who will be the eighth astronaut to manipulate the Soft Matter Dynamics Container (SMD) and replace the PASTA experiment cells with those from FOAM-C.
From PASTA to FOAM-C
On Wednesday August 10, European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will carry out a cell exchange in the “SMD” container (Soft Matter Dynamics). Samantha will unload the sample cells from the PASTA experiment studying emulsions (liquids mixed with non-mixable liquids), replacing them with the sample cells from the FOAM-C experiment studying foams (liquids mixed with gas bubbles). The two-hour long procedure was prepared by the Brussels' team of B.USOC (Belgian User Support and Operations Centre). An operator in Brussels will also follow the activity live. If needed, the operator can interact with the astronaut through a communicator, located in Cologne, who is responsible for European voice exchanges with the astronauts on board the International Space Station. After the cell exchange inside the SMD container, Samantha will pack up the PASTA sample cells for their return back to Earth with the SpaceX Cargo Dragon CRS-25 on August 18.
For European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, born in 1977 in Milan, Italy, this is her second time aboard the International Space Station. She already spent 200 days in space during the ‘Futura’ mission, from November 2014 until June 2015. Samantha returned to the International Space Station for her second mission “Minerva” on April 27, 2022. She was launched in a new SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule named Freedom alongside her Crew-4 crew mates, NASA astronauts Bob "Farmer" Hines, Kjell Lindgren and Jessica "Watty" Watkins.
For both the flights to and from the Station, Samantha is a mission specialist. On Station, she is USOS Lead, responsible for all activities within the US Orbital Segment for the duration of her mission. This segment includes the US, European, Japanese and Canadian modules and components of the Space Station. On July 21, 2022, Samantha was the first European woman to conduct a spacewalk outside the ISS. During her time on board, Samantha will support numerous European and international experiments in orbit, including the FOAM-C experiment.
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An astronaut’s job is no simple task
"SMD" is an experiment container inside the European laboratory rack "FSL" on board of the International Space Station. The abbreviations stand for "Soft Matter Dynamics" and "Fluid Science Laboratory", and indicate that the container is dedicated to the study of soft matter such as foams, gels and granular materials in space. To this end, the SMD container, which is a box of 40x28x27 cm weighting about 30 kg, includes a carousel hosting up to 20 sample cells, a series of optical diagnostics systems and other components to manipulate and control the cells.
The container and its experiments are operated and monitored from the ground, more specifically from the control room of the Belgian User Support and Operations Centre in Brussels. However, to install SMD in its rack or to exchange the sample cells, the intervention of an astronaut is necessary and this crew activity must be planned into a very tightly packed and strictly controlled schedule. The intervention is an intensive work activity: before accessing the sample cells, the astronaut has to lock the floating part of the rack, disconnect the water loop and wire harnesses, remove a protective panel and open the FSL drawer. After the cell exchange, those steps have to be repeated in reverse order.
As this is being executed in microgravity, the astronaut must be careful not to lose any screw or nut and not to damage the sample cells and SMD sensors. The entire thing takes about two hours.
The first installation of the SMD container dates back to July 2018. Since then, the SMD container hosted several experiments, was removed and re-installed a few times to make room for another experiment container, and has now been temporarily replaced by a spare after a component failure. All these interventions have been performed by a host of European and American astronauts:
- Alexander Gerst
- Luca Parmitano
- Jessica Meir
- Chris Cassidy
- Shannon Walker
- Thomas Pesquet
- Mathias Maurer
- Samantha Cristoforetti
Why study soft matter in space?
Some features of soft matter materials are difficult to study on Earth because gravity tends to separate mixtures of a different density. For instance, in wet foams, gravity pulls the liquid between the bubbles downwards, rapidly drying the foam. On board the International Space Station, the experiments benefit from a microgravity environment preventing such inconvenience.
Belgian User Support and Operations Centre
The Belgian User Support and Operation Centre (B.USOC) is hosted at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy since its creation in 1999. It aims to provide engineering and operational support to Belgian and European scientists in the preparation, implementation and exploitation of their experiments/missions, regardless of the space research field. In the frame of the International Space Station, the B.USOC is responsible for two payloads on board the European Columbus module, namely the Fluid Science Laboratory (FSL) and the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM). For those payloads, the B.USOC team is in charge of the preparation and execution of the operations, the tele-commanding and monitoring of the experiments, the data transfer to the scientists, and the coordination of all the stakeholders.