German astronaut Alexander Gerst is returning to the International Space Station (ISS) as the first of ESA’s 2009 class of astronauts to be sent into space for a second time.
During the second part of his mission, Gerst will take over as commander of the International Space Station, only the second time a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut has taken on the role. The next European to take over as commander will be ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano in 2019.
Gerst was launched into space alongside NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Roscosmos commander Sergei Prokopyev in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Over the next two days, while circling Earth 34 times, the trio will catch up with the International Space Station where they will spend the next six months.
What are the mission aims?
Known as ‘Horizon’, the mission will reflect on ESA’s strategy to extend human and robotic exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.
According to ESA, Gerst will work on around 50 European experiments which include testing the ways of operating and working with robots to develop techniques required for further human and robotic exploration of our Solar System.
All experiments run on the International Space Station are chosen because they could not be performed anywhere else. The permanent weightless laboratory allows for long-term studies with humans in microgravity and ESA’s Columbus research module is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
Experiments also include:
- Looking at how muscles and the brain react living away from Earth;
- Testing operations in space with hands-free astronaut-aids; and
- Investigating the inner workings of natural processes such as how metal alloys form and how atoms behave.
One of Gerst’s first scientific tasks during Horizons will be to collect samples for a Canadian experiment that is looking at how bone marrow reacts to spaceflight, during which an astronaut’s bones are underused in weightlessness – findings from these studies are interesting for elderly and bedridden people on Earth who suffer from osteoporosis.