UvA scientist looks back at record-breaking space flight
Dutch ESA-astronaut André Kuipers enjoyed a national welcome at the beach of Noordwijk on the 30th of August. His homecoming followed a successful and record-breaking stay of 193-days on board the International Space Station. UvA scientist Sebastiaan de Vet contributed to the education programme and looks back at the PromISSe mission.
Sebastiaan de Vet works as PhD student at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) where he studies planetary landscape processes. As bachelor student, De Vet designed a microgravity experiment that flew on André Kuipers’ first flight to the space station in 2004 to study how bacteria can generate electricity inside bacterial fuel cells in space. After having performed several microgravity experiments during parabolic flight campaigns himself, De Vet played an important role in the educational programme that was part of André Kuipers’ 193-day space mission in 2012.
“Two years ago we started thinking about experiments and an educational programme for Kuiper’s long-duration space flight” De Vet recalls. “Looking back at the two years of work that have followed since, I am thrilled to see the huge success we have achieved.” This success was fuelled by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Netherlands space Office (NSO) who together developed the educational programme for schools in the Netherlands and Europe. De Vet’s contribution came as principal investigator of the Convection experiment which aimed at demonstrating the effects of gravity in convective processes. In the Netherlands alone, at least 12,000 children carried out the Convection experiment and many more participated in the overall Spaceship Earth programme.
The convection experiment allows children to study how gravity and density drive convection in the oceans, atmosphere and inside the molten core of the Earth. “It is essentially a very simple experiment” De Vet says, “yet children can use it to discover the importance of convective processes which are drivers for climates and biodiversity on Earth”. After proposing the experiment, De Vet performed the first conceptual experiments at the laboratories of IBED in Amsterdam, helped defining the science requirements and co-wrote the ESA classroom lessons which were eventually translated into 7 languages for schools across Europe. “It has been a really unique opportunity to experience a space mission up close and work with such a highly enthusiastic group of educators and specialists to get science into the classrooms” he says.
One of his personal highlights was at the User Support & Operations Centre (USOC), a special mission control centre located at ESA-ESTEC in Noordwijk. While Kuipers was performing the convection experiment, De Vet and his colleagues from ESA’s Human space flight education office kept meticulous track of the progress via a live video feed from inside the Columbus laboratory module of the space station. A few weeks later during a live video conference with the space station, children in four science centres across Europe (including the NEMO science centre in Amsterdam) could see how the outcome of their convection experiment on ground differed from the same experiment that Kuipers carried out in weightlessness in space. “It is a good illustration of the unique conditions why scientists fly experiments into space” explains De Vet. A special online video is now also available for school for use in their lessons with the experiment.