Laboratory of Space Medicine and Space Pharmacology

Space Biology and Life Sciences, Professor Dr. med. Daniela Gabriele Grimm

Blog of our Texus 53 missions

Behind the scenes of our Texus 53 campaign in January 2016
by Sascha Kopp

25.01.2016 Best TEXUS campaign since decades
As we had to reload our batteries yesterday in bed, we had no news. Today we packet our stuff and had a final post-flight meeting. The overall tenor of this meeting was that everybody has not had such a smooth campaign for decades. Every system, from launch over flight to recovery worked perfectly. We are very happy about this awesome campaign and are looking forward to analyze our samples. On this way we want to thank the teams from DLR, Airbus, Mobile Rocket-basis from DLR (MORABA), OHB-System AG, DCTA (Departamento de Ciência e Tecnologia Aeroespacial) and IAE (Instituto de Aeronáutica e Espaço) and SSC (Swedish Space Agency), for this very delighting and successful campaign. We are looking forward to work with you on this unique experimental platform soon.

Figure 13: (A) All involved people during TEXUS 53, (B) The Grimm Team in front of the payload before transfer into the skylark tower (Image credits: Hergen Oltmann).

23.01.2016 3…2…1 Launch
Our work started at 1 am in the night. We filled our cell culture chambers with medium (Figure 12 a) and handed them over to the Airbus team, who installed them in the units (Figure 12 b). Afterwards, we could only wait for the launch. This, however, developed into a thriller. At T-2.30 we had a hold of the countdown for about 3 hours, due to non-ideal winds in the launching area. That shifted our launch time from 6 am to at least 9 am. Finally, after an additional half an hour of waiting for the perfect wind conditions a voice sounded through speakers: 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1 lift off. Due to a folk bank the rocked seemed to start out of water (Figure 12 c, d). The first thrilling moment, the launch, went well, however, there were a couple of other exciting moments like the disconnections of the motor, do the experiments work and the reentry into the atmosphere with the opening of the parachute. Exertion lay in the air in the blockhouse (command center) during all these events, but luckily everything went as planned and after about 18 minutes of flight the rocket touched the ground softly. The folk, however, nearly made a recovery impossible for the helicopter and we already planned to isolate our cells the following day, but luckily the pilot decided give it a shot and get the payload. It arrived back at ESRANGE at 15:30 (Figure 12 e) and our late-access units were directly removed and handed over to us (Figure 12 f). A first glance into the units presented that the fixation procedure went well. We transferred the fixed cells into transportable tubes (Figure 12 g) and will analyze them in our laboratory in Magdeburg. The very long and exciting day ended with a traditional after launch party where everybody could calm down and enjoyed their good work. Tomorrow, we will pack our stuff to leave the very chilly rocket launching area, located in the very north of Sweden, Kiruna.

Figure 12: (A) Filling of the culture chambers, (B) introduction of culture chambers into late-access units, (C, D) Launch of the Texus 53 rocket, (E) retrieval of the payload, (F) uninstalling the late-access units, (G) transfer of fixed cells.

22.01.2016 Preparation for the launch
Today we filled the cell culture flasks with approximately 2 million cells each and then sealed them with their lids (Figure 11 a). In addition, the fixative units were loaded (Figure 11 b) Afterwards, we had a final meeting called flight readiness review in which all involved parties were asked if they are ready for launch (Figure 11c). The essence of this meeting was: we are ready for a launch tomorrow morning at 6 am. And the most critical part, namely the weather conditions, are proposed to be very good. We have to start our work in the night at 1 am, that is why I stop here a go to bed to get at least some hours of sleep.

Figure 11: (A) Cell culture chambers filled with cells, (B) armed fixative units (C) flight readiness review meeting.

21.01.2016 Payload installed in the launching tower
The day started with a photo shooting in front of the assembled payload (Pictures will be hand in later). This was followed by transport and installing of the payload to and in the skylark tower (Figure 10 a, b). To transport the payload, it has to be tilted carefully within a stabilizing frame. During the transport and installation process, we processed our cells to be fit for their upcoming challenge (Figure 10 c). Some cells were split for the worst case, which is a delay of launch. The other cells were fed a last time before they will be transferred into cell culture chambers. These chambers were also carefully assembled while the cells were processed (Figure 10 e, f), taking care that all parts stay as sterile as possible. Tomorrow, cells will be seeded into the culture chambers and are by then ready for launch.

Figure 10: (A, B) Transport of payload to skylark tower, (C) processing of cells by Anita, (D, E) assembly of cell culture chambers.

20.01.2016 Payload assembly
Today´s work was manageable for the scientific team, as visual examination of our cells revealed that they are still growing as wished. The team from Airbus, thereby, was busy assembling the payload parts (Figure 9 a-d). In addition, Moraba installed both rocket motors within the shooting tower (Figure 9 e). The day was shut by a nice clear sky presenting the famous aurora (Figure 9 f).

Figure 9: (A-C) Assembly of payload, (D) assembled payload (image credit: Ingo Beinaar), (E) shooting tower and (D) Aurora over ESRANGE (image credit: Thomas Schleuß).

19.01.2016 Freezing cold conditions
Today was the coldest so far presenting -31°C on the cars screen (Figure 8 a). The reindeers, however, were less impressed. Neither by the freezing temperature nor by our car (Figure 8 b). Our team instead was not amused (Figure 8 c from left to right: Sascha, Anita, Markus). We started the day with changing the nutrition media of our cells in the laboratory. Sadly, during that time, the hardware was installed within its red dress and we were not able to record the procedure (Figure 8 d, e). On picture 8 d you can see through a service cavity, which will be used for late access of the culture chamber units or late-access units, presenting the 1g-onboard centrifuge. On top of the centrifuge you can see 3 additional late-access units which will sense microgravity (Figure 8 e). As previously mentioned, we will also perform on ground controls, of which the units were also prepared (Figure 8 f).

Figure 8: (A) Car screen, (B) reindeer on our way to Kiruna, (C) the team, (D, E) Hardware within the payloads red dress, (F) ground control units.

18.01.2016 Further test
As predicted, there was not much work to do in the laboratory today, except of cutting some connector tubes and autoclaving a set of instruments. In contrast, the engineers of Airbus and Moraba had to perform a lot of functional tests. Our experimental hardware was tested for loose cables (Figure 7 c) and the culture chambers holding units (Figure 7 a) had to undergo a pressure test. In addition, Moraba, who are responsible for the rocket motor, tested the disconnecting system which separates the payload (Figure 7 b) from the engine (Figure 7 d). The payload and the motor will be separated after exactly 59 seconds post-launch at the silver ring visible in figure 7 d and by this a high definition camera will be uncovered which will film the flight. The payload (Figure 7 b) will hold 5 different experiments of which ours is the red encircled.

Figure 7: (A) units holding two cell chambers, (B) Texus 53 payload, (C) on-board centrifuge and (D) adapter between payload and motor.

17.01.2016 First test runs
The day started with some cell culture work. We processed and split our thyroid cancer cells into 50 cell culture flasks (Figure 6 a, b). This was done to achieve a sufficient amount of cells for the launch day and for possible launch delays. In addition to the bench-work, the Texus team ran a first, successful test with one of our hardware containers (Figure 6 c, d). That was followed by a short meeting, where we discussed the in-flight and on-ground procedures. In sum, we will have 10 cell containers on the rocket. During the flight they will be flushed with a fixative at defined time points and afterwards the cells will be analyzed on ground. Of these 10 cell containers, 3 will be fixed after the hypergravity (> 1g, launch) and before the microgravity phase (< 1g), 3 containers will be situated in an on-board 1g centrifuge and will be fixed prior to the reentry into the atmosphere. While the last 4 cell containers will be fixed before reentry and will sense 1 minute of hypergravity (launch) and 6 minutes of microgravity. To ensure that our results are due to the rocket flight, we also have some controls on ground which will be fixed according to the time the on-board 1g centrifuge is running. Tomorrow will be a rather lazy day for the scientists, as the cells have to grow now. However, the Texus team from Airbus will be busy incorporating the red dress (Figure 4 c) and the experimental hardware.

Figure 6: Cell culture flasks before (a) and after processing (b) of the cells. Filling of fixative unit (c) and a fully assembled unit (d).

16.01.2016 Bench-work only
Today, weather brought even more snow. Therefore, we escaped into the well-tempered laboratory (our location is marked in Figure 5 a). After investigation (Figure 5 b) we processed the thyroid cancer cells so that they keep happily growing (Figure 5 c). They seemed to be ready for launch. Tomorrow, the cells will be split into the final 50 cell culture flasks, to be the basis for the cells which will be shot into space.

Figure 5: The launching building and our location (a, red arrow), investigation (b), processing (c) and documentation (d) of our cell culture.

15.01.2016 Preparations started
The day started with a grey sky and a couple of centimeters fresh snow. However, the cells seem not to be impressed by the weather conditions, as they are happily growing in their incubator and appear absolutely healthy (Figure 4 a). Right now, we have 10 cell culture flasks with healthy cells and aim for about 50 flasks prior to the launch. In addition, the cell culture chambers, to be flown on the rocket, were handed over to our team for sterilization purposes (Figure 4 b). While the AIRBUS team was unpacking their instruments, we also got a glance on the red dress, which will cover our experiment (Figure 4 c). Tomorrow, the cells will be investigated and fed with nutrition to keep them steadily growing.

Figure 4: Happily growing cells (a), Hardware ready to be sterelized (b), the lovely red dress for our experiment (c) and the shooting tower covered in snow (d).

14.01.2016 First day at ESRANGE
Yesterday, we finally arrived at Kiruna Airport and the town welcomed us with -25°C. After taking care of the cells in the late evening we, today, started to process and grow the huge amount of cells needed for our experiment. With the help of the Texus Team from AIRBUS, the labs were prepared as needed and everything worked absolutely fluently. For tomorrow, we expect the other investigators to arrive and we will have a first meeting about pre- launch procedures and payload retrieval. At last some impressions of the early sunset at 14:30 noon.

Figure 3: Sunset at ESRANGE.

14.12.2015 Launch postponed to January 2016
Several weels ago we were informed that the launch from our Texus rocket will be delayed until next year. The reason for our delay was the delay of the launch of the preceding MASER capaign due to weather constraints. For some time we did not get any information on when a new launch attempt will be done for our rocket. Last week we were informed that Airbus Defense and Space will try to launch the rocket on January 23. This means the team will fly to Kiruna January 13 and will return two days after a successful launch.

01.10.2015 Final meeting before the journey to the polar circle
Today we had a final meeting with the Texus 53 members. Topics of the meeting were: preparations before lift of, flight profile and post flight procedures. After arriving at the European Space and Sounding Rocket Range, short ESRANGE, which is run by the Swedish Space Cooperation, at the 12th of November, the first hot countdown is scheduled for the 22nd of November. By that time we will have cultured approximately 50 cell culture flasks with thyroid cancer cells. These cells will further be seeded into the hardware, shown in figure 1, and shot into space, fixed and later examined in the lab. In addition to the main topics of the meeting, we were able to have a look on the in-flight 1g centrifuge which will be placed into the rocket for control purposes (figure 2).
As it is not our first sounding rocket campaign, you can have a look at the launch of a similar rocket here.
Figure 2: (A) On-board-1g-centrifuge holding two containments which can comprise two cell containers. (B) Cell container envelope which will be installed on the centrifuge.

16.09.2015 Hardware tests are completed
Using an Annexin V test on cells cultivated in contact to the container material for different time periods resulted in no increase of apoptosis compared to corresponding controls, presenting the container material to be biocompatible.
A major task is, to fill up the flight containers with medium without the formation of air bubbles. These could induce shear forces which can distort the results. By tilting the container and introducing a steady flow of medium, all air bubbles are squeezed out.
Figure 1: (A+B) Learning, how to fill containers bubble-free, (C) viability tests comparing usual cell culture flasks and flight containers.