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Research on International Space Station ISS: German-Russian Plasma Research Facility Successful in Fifth Mission

International Space Station ISS, Russian Segment, February 5-7, 2007. Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Turin successfully operated the plasma crystal research facility PK-3 Plus during its fifth mission within 12 months. The experiment sets were completed successfully and generated an abundance of data for the scientists involved. PK-3 Plus was, like its predecessor (PKE-Nefedov), designed for the study of complex plasmas under weightlessness. PK-3 Plus was developed by Kayser-Threde, Munich, in close cooperation with the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), Garching, and the Academy Institute for High Energy Density (IHED), Moscow. Plasma. We all are familiar with the three aggregate states 'solid', 'liquid' and 'gaseous' or, for example ice, water, water vapor. Furthermore, there is the state of 'plasma'. A physical plasma is an electrically charged gas containing apart from atoms a substantial amount of free and positively charged ions and electrons.

Naturally occurring plasmas can be seen in the polar light, as the sun's atmosphere and as gas nebulae in space. More than 99 % of the universe's visible matter is in the state of plasma. Some of the plasma is interspersed with small micrometer particles ('dust'). These micro particles become electrically charged and drastically change the plasma's properties. PK-3 Plus was designed to investigate the physical properties of the so called 'complex plasmas'. PK-3 Plus's plasma chamber is equipped with a number of dispensers. They enable the operators to insert the desired amount of micro particles ('dust') varying in size into the plasma which is generated between two electrodes. They align like atoms in a crystal (plasma crystal), atoms in a liquid or in a gas − depending on the experiment parameters selected for the electrical field and gas pressure. This means that there are 'aggregate states' within complex plasmas, too. Apart from research on complex plasmas, the micro particles build a suitable model for 'normal' materials. The array of the particles and their movements can be directly observed with the bare eye or with cameras. The astrophysical research findings from PK-3 Plus missions benefit astrophysical research, too.

Mission. The fifth mission did not – like most experiment sets of the prior missions – aim primarily at the investigation of plasma crystals. Mikhail Turin's experiments focused on the phase transformation liquid-solid. On ground, scientists in the control center in Korolov near Moscow saw the correct execution of the experiments in live video transmissions. It was possible to observe the behavior of a complex plasma that was consistent with the behavior of electrorheologic liquids. The formation of crystals was achieved via the organization of particle strings along the electrical axis.

Operation. Prior to a mission, the cosmonaut or astronaut has to fetch the facility from its storage place. He then connects its vacuum system to space via a valve in the station's side and checks the leak tightness/impermeability of the connections. Once the facility is switched on and a functional test has been completed, an internal turbo molecular pump is engaged in order to improve the quality of the vacuum. The experiment procedures are prepared on ground and are then transmitted to the ISS from the Russian ground control center. The astronaut/cosmonaut in turn loads the procedures into the facility which executes them almost fully automatically. Some of the experiments require manual fine tuning through the cosmonaut who is assisted by an expert crew of scientists and engineers on ground via voice radio.
During his prior stay onboard ISS several years ago, Mikhail Turin had worked with the predecessor unit, PKE-Nefedov. The training with the new facility took place in the training center close to Moscow.
The fruitful cooperation of many years between the Russian and German partners has established close relationships. This helps realizing the demanding tasks and makes every mission a special experience.

Customer and partners. Munich's systems house Kayser-Threde is responsible for all systems aspects of the research facility PK-3 Plus. The contract was awarded by the Space Agency of the German Aerospace Center in Bonn (DLR), on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. Moscow's RKK Energia, the operator of ISS’s Russian segment, is responsible for all the work arising within the frame of a PK-3 mission.

Further links:
http://www.dlr.de/ (DLR)
http://www.energia.ru/english/ (RKK Energia)

The pictures show Mikhail Turin during the fifth PK-3 Plus mission: The first picture was taken in ISS' Russian module Svezda with the telescience unit which is necessary for operating the experiment and for recording experiment data and video data. The second picture shows the cosmonaut in the Pirs Docking Compartment with the PK-3 Plus experiment container (above his left arm).

About Kayser-Threde. Founded in 1967, Kayser-Threde is a leading systems house providing high-technology solutions for the industrial, aerospace and scientific sectors. These include applications and solutions in manned and unmanned space missions, optics, telematics, crash-test data acquisition and process control. Kayser-Threde is well respected for working closely together with its customers from a project’s start through to completion, including all aspects from studies, analyses, systems design, special developments, production, testing, implementation, operation and support.
Born out of the rigorous requirements demanded in the aerospace business, Kayser-Threde has developed outstanding quality standards reflected in the reliability of its systems, solutions and processes. Further information on Kayser-Threde and its offerings is available at http://www.kayser-threde.com

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Pictures: NASA

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