Saturday, September 28, 2013

Hanging out with Astronauts: ESA/DLR's SocialSpace Cologne, 22 September 2013

(note: click the images with this post to get larger versions)

It can be safely said that unless you work in the space industry, you won't meet an astronaut very often. So you can perhaps imagine how exciting it is to the average space buff like me, to meet seven of them in one day!

Now hold that thought, and imagine how surreal the moment becomes when an astronaut (Léopold Eyharts, pictured below) is sitting at your table, in the chair right next to you, casually discussing the merits of the Soyuz versus the Space Shuttle in the same way that others compare a Volkswagen to a Prius...

Astronaut Léopold Eyharts sitting next to me at SocialSpace Cologne, discussing the merits of Soyuz versus Shuttle

That certainly is not your average Sunday afternoon....

The scene I describe happened in the afternoon of  Sunday 22 September at the SocialSpace Cologne meeting organized by the European Space Agency ESA and the German Aerospace organisation DLR.  The meeting took place at the DLR complex near Cologne, Germany.

SocialSpace is ESA's new name for a Space Tweetup, the new name reflecting that they seek an audience from a wider scope of their social media followers than just Twitter.

Until a year ago, when I attended my first, the 'tweetup' phenomena was completely unknown to me. Readers of my report on the May 2012 AndréTweetup at ESTEC will remember how I was unsure what to expect, half of me fearing that I would be confronted with 70 Sheldon Coopers plus a handful of Wolowitzes, dressed up in trekkie costumes...

(incidentally, there was a trekkie among the SocialSpace attendants this time, dressed up as Mrs Spock. Yes, Mrs Spock...: in stockings, and complete with pointy ears).

In reality, these tweetups turn out to be interesting and fun, the people involved generally quite sane and very nice, and an occasion where you make new friends. Some of these I now met again, in the context of this SocialSpace Cologne event, and I discovered that this proces of meeting attendants you know from a previous tweetup, together with the fact that you make a bunch of new like-minded acquaintances, is an important part of the social process of this kind of meetings. For example, I met Eico and Alex Neumann again (@Travelholic and @4tuneQkie on Twitter), even though they did not participate in the actual tweetup SocialSpace this time. They were however present at the informal social gathering at Brauhaus Sion the evening before the event.

SpaceKoelschX the evening before SocialSpace: 40 Space tweeps, beer and schnitzels

This unofficial pre-gathering called SpaceKoelschX consisted of some 40 people gathering for Kölsch (local beer), schnitzel, bratwurst, bratkartoffeln and a general swell time on the evening before the SocialSpace event. Most of them were SocialSpace attendants, and some of the ESA social media people were there as well. But the group also included people from previous tweetups that were not selected to attend this time, but came to Cologne on their own volition to visit the German Aerospace Day, a huge event which attracts about 100 000 visitors.

The ESA/DLR SocialSpace event itself took place the next day in a large tent on the vast DLR grounds bordering the airfield near Cologne, in the context of the already mentioned bi-annual German Aerospace Day.

two fish-eye views into the SocialSpace tent

The 60 attendants were selected from a large group of active social media followers who applied to a call spread through the ESA/DLR social media accounts (i.e., Twitter and Facebook). These lucky ones selected, including yours truely, got treated to a special program of lectures, a VIP tour through the DLR and ESA facilities, as well as a meet-and-greet with a whole bunch of astronauts.

And when I say "a whole bunch", I truely mean: a whole bunch. At a certain moment our SocialSpace tent on the DLR grounds started to teem with blue flight suits, to the point where I started to mutter: "we must find the nest and destroy the eggs!".

The image below shows you, from left to right: Reinhold Ewald, Thomas Pesquet, André Kuipers, Alexander Gerst, Frank de Winne, Léopold Eyharts and Andreas Mogensen:

Part of the tweetup SocialSpace tradition seems to be the presence of a number of mascots. I have covered Hugh the bear before in my report on a previous tweetup: present this time were a host of other mascottes, ranging from a Space Barbie to a Pink Little Dragon to Camilla the Space chicken. I must admit, this is a part of the Space tweetup SocialSpace folklore that I still have to get used to...

Me posing with Pink Little Dragon and Camilla the Space chicken

@projmgr and Space Barbie

@4tuneQkie with Camilla the Space Chicken and Pink Little Dragon during the SpaceKoelschX
ESA's Daniel Scuka (right) and another ESA employee who's name I do not know DLR's Elke Heinemann with Paxi, ESA's kids mascott. A life-sized version of Paxi visited us later.

While this all might make an impression of Space oddities, there was serious business as well. We got treated to a fine series of lectures that day by several ESA and DLR scientists, astronauts and a test pilot.

After we were picked up at Porz-Wahn station and brought to the venue by bus, the traditional handing out of badges, T-shirts and goody bags took place. After brief general introductions by the organizing team of ESA and DLR, we all shortly introduced ourselves. One of the nice things of large ESA tweetups like this is the very international vibe. The attendants to this SocialSpace came from all over Europe and even beyond, including the US and Canada.

Next we all set up shop with our laptops and other devices, from which we started to Live tweet the event. After all, it is a tweetup, n'est ce pas? We did it so well that #SocialSpace became a trending topic for a while. Two of the attendants even established a live webcast of the event.

The series of lectures started with ESA's Robert Meissner lecturing about the use of satellites for remote sensing. Apart from breathtaking satellite imagery, his lecture provided a good overview of the kind of remote sensing observations satellites can perform, and their practical application. Keeping an eye on crop production and soil and biomass degradation are important applications, for example.

Apart from modern imagery and their application, Meissner also showed us the very grainy first image of earth ever taken by a satellite, over 50 years ago. With a jump to the future, he announced that the GMES/Copernicus data, an ambitious Remote Sensing program by ESA, will be Open Access.

Sometimes satellite images contain baffling things. In the image above, Meissner shows us a giant geoglyph of the Egyptian god Horus that is visible on satellite images of an area in the interior of Australia. It was probably created as a joke by the Oz Army Corps.

The next lecture by Jens Danzeglocke connected to the previous lecture by taking a detailed look at the role European spacecraft (amongst others) play in disaster crisis management. The information exchange network the spacecraft play a role in, helps local authorities to quickly assess damage from natural disasters and coordinate disaster relief efforts based on these results. Most of these activities (about half of them) concern flood disasters, and Danzeglocke told us that radar satellites play an important role in these, as flooding disasters tend to be accompanied by cloud cover. The international Space charter the European space agencies take part in covered over 400 disasters in 110 countries since  2000.

Next another Jens, biologist Jens Hauslagen, lectured about "food in space". This was an interesting lecture about research into the useful application of waste recycling for crop growing in a closed system (e.g. a Space Station). Did you know that one human produces 10 kg of urea, 110 kg of 'organic waste' (that is: poo) and 100 kg of left-over food each year? In a closed system, these have to be recycled, and Hauslagen works on a series of very intricate ways to do this, including all kinds of filters but also small bio-organisms and even fish. Not only does this reduce waste: by recycling it enables the growth of food in long duration missions. His work has a down-to-earth application too: for example, there is a Maroccan town that recycles leftover waste from its fruit- and vegetable markets with techniques developed by Hauslagen and his team.

DLR test pilot Steffen Gemsa

The next speaker was DLR test pilot Steffen Gemsa. This is one of the pilots who took off in a research aircraft to fly into the volcanic ash cloud during the April 2010 Icelandic volcano crisis. Yes, you read that right: all over Europe aircraft were grounded, and this guy deliberately flew into the ash cloud. It's part of his job, that also includes testing aircraft under specific conditions, and conducting research flights with scientific equipment. It was an interesting lecture, as a result of which I learned the interesting bit of trivia that there are only five (5) test pilot schools worldwide.

Following Gemsa, Manuel Mezt and Holger Krag of ESA and DLR talked us up to date on all matters concerning Space Debris, ways to detect them and ways to mitigate the dangers of them. This included some results of simulations, and visualizations of all space debris in orbit around the Earth. Which is 93% of all objects currently in orbit.

Manuel Metz visualizing all object in orbit

Krag told us that every day some satellites are hit by (very) small particles of space debris smaller than 0.1 mm. The number of particles has dramatically grown over the past years due to a Chinese ASAT test in 2007 and a collision between an old Russian rocket booster and the Iridium 33 satellite in 2010. Krag made clear that if we continue this way, spaceflight will soon become impossible. Hence, measures are necessary to reduce the amount of space debris.

One way to reduce space debris is by making objects decay faster. This can be done for example by fitting spent rocket boosters and decommissioned satellites with solar sails. These sails increase drag, reducing on-orbit lifetimes.

 Krag: fitting satellites with solar sails after decommision will speed up their decay

Incidentally, Dutch astronaut (ehrm, pardon: European astronaut of Dutch origin) André Kuipers would later tell us about his experience with space debris too: during his stay on the ISS in 2012, they had to do two diversion manoeuvres plus a retreat into the Soyuz capsule because of close encounters with larger space debris.

After I asked a question in the discussion, Manuel Metz came over to me at the start of lunch, and told me he actually reads my blog. Wow!

Lunchtime also served as an hour off to freely roam the DLR grounds. Together with @Susivic I made a short visit to the airfield to see some of the aircraft there, including a Eurofighter:

Eurofighter, the jet our government did not buy

Incidentally, this was also the moment we first glimpsed André Kuipers, whom would later visit us in the tent.

When we came back from our short stroll over the DLR Open Day, DLR chairman and ESA director Jan Wörner and Thomas Reiter briefly took the stage.Whenever you see suits on stage, you know they will talk politics. Space politics in this case, with a brief discussion of future plans and goals. Reiter made the interesting statement that "I can believe we will perhaps see humans return to the surface of the moon in the next decade".

Next came a series of lectures all connected to ESA's Rosetta sampling mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The first lecture, a grand overview of this exciting mission to land on a comet (!), was by project PI Gerhard Schwehm, who was involved when the mission was conceived in 1985 (!) and now will see it completed just before his retirement. In the original plans comet Wirtanen was the target, but when the launch suffered a  delay, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko was selected.


After Schwehm, and as an intermezzo, the astronaut and my fellow countryman André Kuipers took the stage, as a replacement for Samantha Cristoforetti who at the last minute could not make it.

I decided that the Geek code in this case as a rare exception does allow for a selfie:

Selfie with astronaut in the background

André told various anecdotes from his PromISSe mission in 2012 (the longest ESA mission onboard the ISS), including the short-circuit in the solar panels, the temporary retreat into the Soyuz because of a dangerously close encounter with a large piece of space debris, and the fact that all three of them threw up after their Soyuz capsule landed in the Kazachstan steppe. He told us astronauts need half a year to recover from a spaceflight and that the bone loss suffered during a long ISS stay might actually never fully recover. The unknown long-term effects of cosmic radiation are also a concern.

Kuipers stated he welcomes commercial spaceflight as long as it is done safely, and he said he believes the SpaceX Dragon will one day fly astronauts.

Kuipers was one of the two astronauts grappling and hooking up the first DragonX capsule to the ISS. Later that day, when the astronauts present intermingled with the SocialSpace attendants, he would tell the story of docking the Dragon in more detail:

St Kuipers, retelling how he slew the SpaceX Dragon in an epic heavenly battle

Stephan Ulamec and Koen Geurts next lectured on details of the Philae lander that is part of the Rosetta mission effort. Ulamec told us that since no-one has ever landed on a comet before and we actually know very little of the make-up of the nucleus of the comet in terms of surface condition and density, it is a very tricky thing to do. Another challenge is the long-term operation of the spacecraft without RTG's to provide energy (Rosetta/Philae has solar panels only).

The lander is actually washmachine sized and the landing will involve a bit of Space Whaling: the probe will fire two harpoons into the cometary nucleaus and rope itself in. Its first act will then be to take a 360 degree panorama to see in what position it landed. Ulamec succinctly summed up the scientific importance of the project by stating: "If you want to get to the pristine material, you will have to land there" (with "there" being the comet, which is made up of pristine materials from the formation of our solar system).

After these highly interesting lectures, it was time for our VIP tour through the EAC facilities. We were divided up in two groups, each of which  was met by an astronaut (in my group's case, Thomas Pesquet) who would act as our guide. Pesquet did not spare us the gory details: at the Neutral Buoyancy Facility, he told us astronauts frequently lose a fingernail while practising in the suit in what I am apparently not allowed to characterize as a giant swimming pool.

Columbus module mock-up in the EAC Neutral Buoyancy Facility
Apart from the Neutral Buoyancy Facility, we also got a quick glance at the only existing life-size mock-up of the ATV, which made me realize how big the ATV's actually are. Next, Pesquet took us to a place rarely visited by outsiders: ESA's  Eurocom control room, where they monitor and control all kinds of European things going on in the International Space Station:


 Thomas Pesquet explaining things in the Eurocom control room to us

Geek humor in Eurocom

After this first truely Close Encounter with an alien astronaut, we went back to the SocialSpace tent where we got a very cool demonstration by ESA's  Advanced Concepts Team, who work on some very geeky stuff. They demonstrated a quadcopter drone controlled by an iPad app, simulating the ISS in a game environment. The app might one day actually help finetuning techniques so drones (or spacecraft) can automatically assess distance.

the drone

Then it was time for more astronauts again. Alexander Gerst who had elsewhere just completed a press conference where he revealed the name of his upcoming ISS mission, Blue Dot, and Thomas Pesquet who earlier was our guide at  the EAC tour, took the stage.

 Thomas Pesquet (left) and Alexander Gerst (right)

They turned out to be a golden comedy duo, with very witty retorts between the two. Thomas Pesquet next asked the audience for suggestions what to do in terms of social media activities when he is in the ISS, "since about everything already has been done by now...". May I suggest a weekly comedy show from space perhaps?

Then the moment came where the tent suddenly started to teem with an overload of astronauts. Seven of them took the stage, and next intermingled with us by sitting down among us at the tables, answering questions and relating experiences. At this point, we had a significant part of the European astronaut corps hanging out with us!

 Léopold Eyharts, who went to MIR in a Soyuz in1998 and to the ISS in a Space Shuttle in 2008, sat down next to me and told us the ride up is better on the Soyuz, but the journey down is much more comfortable on a Shuttle. One of the reasons which he mentioned for that verdict was the constant swinging of the Soyuz capsule under the parachute.

Apart from listening to Léopold Eyharts, I listened to André Kuipers and later had the opportunity (thanks to Suzanne Pieterse (@Susivic), who handled the camera) to have my picture taken with him. He also signed a folder of postcards for me and my SocialSpace badge. Which made me tweet, in a Sheldon Cooper moment: "Now I have his DNA!"

André Kuipers kindly posing with me

signed badge and postcard folder

With this, the day finally ended. Or more or less: there was an informal drink afterwards, which saw more opportunity to talk to astronauts, various ESA people and other attendants.

ESA's Social Media guy, Daniel Scuka, talking to two attendants

Around 18:45 I left for the station for the ICE journey back, but not after grabbing a quick bite with Lynn van Rooijen (@lynnvr) at the trainstation. I was knackered when I arrived home, well after midnight: but it had been worth it. This was a cool day with an overload of astronauts, a highly interesting lecture program, and lots of very nice people. I would not have wanted to miss it!

I warmly want to thank the ESA/DLR organizers, and specifically Daniel Scuka, for inviting me to this wonderful day and all the good care they took of us.

(Note: photographs with this report were taken with two cameras: my Canon, and a rather old and decidedly less quality iPhone. So apologies for the bad quality of some of them)

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Blogger Brigitte Bailleul said...

Would have missed this report if not for Daniel's comment on Facebook! Well done :)

29/9/13 10:43  

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