Six researchers reveal just how far they go to discover some of nature’s deepest secrets or test novel technologies.
To many people the very word “scientist” brings forth a stereotypical image of people in lab coats and goggles, toying earnestly with glassware and garishly coloured, bubbling fluids, very probably in a rather dull air-conditioned lab with little natural daylight. No wonder many European youngsters consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the disciplines vital for economic success – tedious and nerdy.
This image is, of course, nonsense. Scientists are just as likely to be doing their work in the field, in freezing or sweltering locations, above the planet or deep inside it, taking risks and producing exhilarating results that lead to technologies that change our lives. They are like high-level athletes, marshalling strength, both mental and physical, as well as courage, patience and endurance to achieve their goals. Some of their locations verge on the mind-blowing – aboard spacecraft, beneath ice caps, on glaciers, on the seabed, in deserts or even inside a volcano.
Technologist looks in on six people doing cutting-edge science in some very extreme places, like Andreas Mogensen, astronaut and engineer.
What?►The International Space Station (ISS) offers astronauts the chance to test nascent technologies in microgravity and also to perform earth observation and communications tests from orbit. European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen performed all these on a flight to the ISS in September 2015. “I was delighted that I would be flying to space so soon,” says Mogensen, an honorary associate professor at DTU-Technical University of Denmark. He first learned that he had been accepted as an ESA astronaut in September 2009 and was amazed to be flying just six years later. “It might seem a long time but it’s actually a short time for an astronaut.”
As an aerospace engineer he is full of admiration for the veteran Soyuz, the 1960’s era Russian spacecraft he flew in. “The Soyuz is a magnificent vehicle in many different ways, despite the fact that we would not build a modern spacecraft that way. It has an old analogue layer of instruments, for instance, that still serve as our backup today. It’s a very robust, reliable vehicle.”
How?► Astronaut Mogensen undertook a clutch of experiments 400 kilometres above the earth as the ISS travelled at 27,600 kilometres per hour. A key capability of future manned Mars missions will be to steer ground-based rovers and robots on the Martian surface for automated mining operations or perhaps even to assemble ground habitation for human crews someday. ESA has developed a tactile feedback robot-control system which Mogensen got to test, driving robots at ESA’s lab in Noordwijk, Netherlands, via radio link from space.
The tasks included pushing a metal peg 4 centimeters into a hole to make an electrical connection. It worked – and the force feedback allowed Mogensen to actually feel when the robot arm on a rover met resistance at the hole edges. “Andreas managed two complete drive, approach, park and peg-in-hole insertions, demonstrating precision force-feedback from orbit for the very first time in the history of spaceflight,” says André Schiele of ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory.
As Denmark’s first astronaut, Mogensen tested some Danish technology too: a novel biomimetic membrane designed to keep the space station’s drinking water bacteria-free. Its chief benefit? It requires no energy on a spacecraft where every joule of solar power is precious.
Special report by Paul Marks
Karin Sigloch, Geophysicist (2/5)