This month in orbit: May’s space science

Science & Exploration


Vital research into health, climate, materials and more continues with ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and colleagues aboard the Space Station this month. Get up to date with what was on their schedule with May’s space science summary.

On 6 May 2022, ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer made his return to Earth, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico and marking the end of his Cosmic Kiss mission, although post-flight debriefings and science data collection continue.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti’s Minerva mission continues on the International Space Station. And this month she has been working with colleagues from around the world to conduct yet more fascinating science to benefit us here on Earth. Here’s a round-up of some of this month’s highlights.

Understanding the body

Investigating the ways in which microgravity affects the health of our astronauts is a very important part of research aboard the Space Station. Not only does it allow us to safely continue a sustained human presence in space, but it also gives unique insights into health conditions – and potential treatments – back on Earth.

This month, Samantha and her colleague Kjell Lindgren of NASA both conducted measurements for the Acoustic Diagnostics experiment. This study aims to look at the impact of noise aboard the Space Station and microgravity on hearing. Using specialized equipment, researchers are able to see how otoacoustic emissions (tiny sounds from inside the ear) may change over time in noisy environments.

Astronaut hearing test | cosmic-kiss

The team also collected data for the ongoing Muscle Tone in Space experiment, Myotones. Astronauts train on gym equipment designed for space for at least one and a half hours a day to keep their muscles in great shape, even without gravity. The Myotones investigation looks at the biochemical properties of muscle during spaceflight, and could lead to new rehabilitation techniques, both for astronauts and the rest of us down here on Earth.

Keeping an eye on Earth

Despite some minor technical issues, data collection for the Atmosphere–Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) continued throughout the month. ASIM studies severe thunderstorms and helps us understand the role they play in Earth’s atmosphere and climate. In the future, it may even help us understand more about how our atmosphere protects us from radiation, as well as make climate models more accurate.

Vegetation fighting land degradation in Mongolia

This month Samantha also took Cupola photos of several certificates for ESA’s own Climate Detectives. This youth project aims to stimulate curiosity about issues facing our climate in the next generation of scientists, and empower them to find solutions. She also captured photos of one such solution over China’s Kubuqi Desert on 6 June. More than 50% of the desert is now covered in vegetation following restoration efforts.

Building for the future

The Fluid Science Laboratory on the Space Station gets upgraded

The team aboard the Station also ran several experiments investigating the properties of materials in microgravity this month. Firstly, the FSL Soft Matter Dynamics PASTA experiment, which looks at the behavior of emulsions in microgravity. Emulsions are used in a wide variety of industries on Earth, including food, cosmetics and even medicines. Understanding how they form and their dynamics will allow us to develop better, greener and healthier emulsion-based products and processes.

And it’s not just food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that benefitted from space research this month. In May and June, astronauts also turned their attention to two studies focusing on alloys. Electro-Magnetic Levitator (EML) and Transparent Alloys experiments look at microstructure and formation of metallic alloy samples. Gathering these measurements helps us understand just what gives alloys their strength, flexibility and longevity.

Preparing to go further

The team on the International Space Station continues to build our capability to explore beyond our own planet. On 1 June, that took the form of Samantha controlling Justin, an Earth-based robot, from Earth orbit. This Surface Avatar experiment will help researchers understand how astronauts may be able to interact with robots on planets’ surfaces in future missions, and design protocols to make the process as easy as possible.

Surface Avatar

On 20 May, Samantha installed sample holders for the Matiss-3 experiment, which explores the antimicrobial properties of hydrophobic (or water repelling) surfaces in space. Because being in space lowers astronaut immune response, keeping their environment sanitary is incredibly important; this study will give us an idea of ​​which materials can best keep pathogens at bay. It’s possible that in the future, the findings of this study may help us to create spacecrafts that are easier to keep clean, freeing up more astronaut time for vital research.


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