French Astronaut Thomas Pesquet Tests Edible Foam Packaging, VR and Other Experiments on Space Station

Thomas Pesquet before his first extravehicular activity (EVA) as part of the Alpha mission on June 16, 2021. (Credits: ESA/NASA)

PARIS (CNES PR) — In August, Thomas Pesquet received 5 new French experiments, 2 of which prepare for long-term human exploration.

Limiting Waste

Edible foam edible packaging kit. (Credits: CNES/DE PRADA Thierry, 2020)

In August, Thomas Pesquet received a “consumable” case stuffed with gingerbread, madeleine and bread from Genoa as part of the “Edible Foam” experiment. He verified that the edible walls had fulfilled their mission of protecting the transported material, by inspecting the container and contents and by answering a detailed questionnaire. 

“Currently, the cases arriving in the ISS are assembled with foams made from petroleum derivatives. These gray foams are bulky and unnecessary on board the station. For the first time, we are going to try to transform the transport kits into an edible payload! These foams could then be used during future trips to the Moon or the planet Mars, with a major advantage: optimizing the management of resources and waste during manned space missions,” explains Rémi Canton.

Anticipating the Inflow of Solar Radiation

Inside of the Lumina dosimeter, with 2 optical fibers 2 and 7 km long coiled on themselves. (Credits: CNES / DE PRADA Thierry, 2021)

In August, Thomas Pesquet received the active fiber optic dosimeter for the Lumina experiment.  This is the first time that such a technology has been tested in microgravity. 

“Dosimeters are essential to any long-term human mission because they measure the amount of radiation that could damage the equipment but also the DNA of astronauts. Thanks to fiber optic dosimeters, we hope to see the beginnings of solar flares and be able to warn astronauts before radiation peaks, with about an hour’s notice, so that they can take shelter when they are in trips to the Moon, and one day to Mars,” explains Rémi Canton, our project manager for the Alpha mission

Located in low orbit, the ISS is protected from solar and cosmic radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field. It will be quite different on Mars and on the Moon.

Keeping Fit Using Immersive Technology

Thomas Pesquet repeats the Immersive Exercise experience at the European Astronaut Training Center (EAC), Cologne, Germany. (Credits: ESA)

In space, astronauts practice at least 2 hours of sport per day in order to limit the loss of muscle mass in weightlessness. However, this daily physical exercise, carried out in a closed and immutable environment, quickly becomes repetitive and boring. The objective of the Immersive Exercise experience is to break this sporting routine thanks to virtual reality by “transporting” the astronaut to Earth.

Equipped with an immersive virtual reality headset and a pair of shoes equipped with cadence sensors, Thomas Pesquet will pedal in the ISS while having the mind in the streets of Paris, around Marseille, or in Russia in Saint-Petersburg… The videos filmed at 360 ° on Earth are played in the virtual reality headset and their scrolling speed is synchronized with the pedaling speed. The feelings of astronauts will be studied in order to determine its psychological impact, a major issue before considering long space trips to the Moon and Mars.

Performing Remote Robotic Tasks

Thomas Pesquet wears a virtual reality headset as part of the Pilot experiment on May 26, 2021. (Credits: ESA/NASA)

A virtual reality headset will also be used for the Pilot experience. This neuroscience experiment aims to study hand-eye coordination and the different patterns that the brain sets up to perform a piloting or robotics task in a virtual environment. It combines immersive reality (the headset) and a haptic device simulating the sense of touch with force feedback. 

“On the Moon, one could imagine astronauts from a station in lunar orbit piloting a rover to explore the surface or take samples, ” said Rémi Canton.

Sleep Well, Dream Well

Rémi Canton, our project manager for the Alpha mission at CADMOS (CNES) . (Credits: CNES/DE PRADA Thierry, 2021)

In the ISS, astronauts see the sun rise and set 16 times a day. During a trip to Mars or to the Moon, this rhythm will also be disturbed. However, sleep disturbances impair the ability to memorize, think, and implement strategies to deal with unusual situations – which inevitably happened on Mars. Arrival in February 2021, the “Dreams” experience consists of 3 recording sessions over 2 nights. During these sessions (2 of which have already been carried out), Thomas Pesquet is equipped with a forehead band fitted with a sensor that records brain activity, from which the cycles / phases / quality of sleep are deduced, and an accelerometer to measure respiratory rate and movements.

Long-lasting Fresh Products

Fresh produce currently brought by supply vehicles to the ISS arrives every 3 to 4 months. However, their shelf life is only about a week. Scheduled for arrival in August, the “Freshness Packaging” experiment should demonstrate the effectiveness of new permeable packaging, the particularity of which is to allow gas exchanges to promote the preservation of fruits and vegetables for 15 days to 1 month. The well-being of astronauts also depends on food.

Moving Objects Without Touching Them

Testing the Telemachus experiment on Earth. (Credits: ESA, 2021)

Moving an object without coming into contact with it is the objective of the “acoustic gripper” of the Telemachus experience . This clamp emits a field of ultrasonic waves which exert a force on the objects they encounter as they propagate, creating a trap around them. This allows to control and move an object (small size) with very high precision. 

“In microgravity, such a clamp could allow handling of samples or toxic products – liquid or solid – without contact and without risk of contamination ” explains Jean Blouvac.

CADMOS at the Heart of Operations

CADMOS (Credit: CNES)

CADMOS is the Center to Support the Development of Microgravity Activities and Space Operations. It is an operational center based at CNES in Toulouse. Its role is to support scientific users, to adapt their experiences to the constraints of microgravity, in the International Space Station, the Airbus A310 Zero-G, etc. As part of the Alpha mission, he prepared the 12 French experiments embarked on the adventure with Thomas Pesquet.