20 Years of Plasma Research on ISS Advance Understanding of Physics, Crystals

The PK-4 plasma crystal laboratory. (Credit: MPE)
  • The plasma crystal experiments are one of the first and most successful research projects on the ISS.
  • The first long-term tests under weightlessness started on March 3, 2001: They provide insights into physical processes at the atomic level.
  • ISS astronauts are always part of the plasma research team, including Thomas Reiter during his Astrolab mission.
  • From 22-29. The next experiments on board the ISS will run on March 2021.

COLOGNE, Germany (DLR) — For 20 years they have been a reliable source of new insights into physics: the plasma crystal experiments on board the International Space Station ISS. Basic knowledge for the textbooks of the future is the main goal of this research. Various applications can be derived from the knowledge gained, in particular in the fields of medicine, environmental protection, space travel as well as semiconductor and microchip technologies. 

By means of technology transfers, plasma research also opens up new fields of application, based for example on the development of miniaturized laboratory systems suitable for space travel. The first ISS crew already had plasma research on their agenda and on March 3, 2001 the starting shot was given for the first long-term tests under weightlessness. The current crew will now carry out the latest series of experiments at the end of March.

“For research on complex plasmas, weightlessness offers the only possibility to examine the entire, scientifically interesting parameter space. It is predestined for the ISS ”, says group leader Dr. Hubertus Thomas from the DLR Institute for Materials Physics in space.

Plasma is ionized gas and is used technically in a variety of ways, for example in fluorescent tubes or plasma televisions. Plasma is very rare on earth; in its natural form it occurs, for example, as lightning. In space, on the other hand, 99 percent of visible matter is in the plasma state. These include stars, including the sun, or the ionosphere of planets. If the electrically charged gas also contains dust particles or other microparticles, so-called “complex plasmas” are created, which can form crystalline structures.

Astronaut as a success factor

In addition to the sophisticated technology and hardware, the “executors” on board the ISS are also essential for the success of the test series. The ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter has so far been the only German to have held this role. As part of the Astrolab mission, he operated the PK-3 Plus plasma crystal laboratory in August and October 2006:

“PK-3 Plus was a really interactive experiment. After commissioning, I had direct radio communication with the scientists on the ground for many test series. The description of my observations allowed them to pass on modifications of the various test parameters, which I then set in the plasma crystal laboratory. It was fascinating – despite the great distance to the ground station, you were part of a research team. The collaboration was not only extremely interesting, it was also a lot of fun! PK 3 Plus was also an example of the fact that basic research can also have unexpected applications in everyday life on earth, ”remembers Thomas Reiter.

Cosmonaut Sergey Krikalev setting up the PKE-Nefedov apparatus. (Credit: Roscomos)

The astronauts see, think and act as experimenters. For the scientists on the ground, they can react to unexpected situations or respond to new findings. Cosmonaut Juri Baturin demonstrated a particularly lucky hand during the series of experiments in May 2001: the plasma could not be ignited in the laboratory chamber. 

However, the cosmonaut continued the experiment, shaking microparticles into the chamber’s neutral, rather than charged, gas. To the astonishment of the scientists, the particles were both positively and negatively charged and, due to the strong electrical attraction, formed a large agglomerate several millimeters in diameter and other “lumps” in a fraction of a second. On the basis of this observation, the previous riddle of the formation of planets could be solved,

This also shows how close the research topic is to natural dusty plasmas that occur in our solar system, for example in the rings of Saturn or on the moon. “The dust is one of the biggest problems on the moon! The fundamental findings of plasma research on the ISS are particularly important for the upcoming lunar missions in order to better understand the properties of lunar dust and to be able to deal with it better, ”explains Thomas. The dust in the solar plasma is charged, can even float and has a strong adhesive effect. Since moon dust is sharp-edged, this leads to increased wear and tear on surfaces and instruments and poses a health risk for the astronauts.

Physics teaching knowledge expanded

With over 100 scientific publications, the plasma crystal experiments are among the most successful research projects on the ISS. The findings from this have expanded and revised the teaching knowledge of physics several times. The team around Dr. Hubertus Thomas also demonstrate that a complex plasma is a new state of soft matter. In weightlessness, the charged microparticles spread freely in space and form ordered three-dimensional crystal structures, so-called “plasma crystals”. Their discovery in 1994 fundamentally changed the doctrine of physics, as plasma was previously considered to be the most disordered state of matter.

The experiments on board the ISS make physical processes visible at the atomic level. The movement of individual “atoms” and their interactions can be tracked as if in slow motion. In the last 20 years, the scientists gained unique insights into the formation of large crystal structures and long chains, the propagation of waves, shear currents and the flow properties of complex plasmas. With the investigations on the model system, the plasma researchers are helping to better understand the dynamic processes and phenomena and to expand basic knowledge in physics. The fascination for the universe always resonates:

“Sometimes you can see the ISS fly over in the sky and when I imagine that our laboratory is there and a cosmonaut is doing a plasma crystal experiment there, then I find it fascinating. Not only do we have our laboratory in the basement, but also on the most extreme outpost of mankind – that is still something very special even after 20 years, ”said Thomas. From March 22 to 29, 2021, the next plasma crystal experiments will take place again at an altitude of around 400 kilometers.

International cooperation in space

The first plasma crystal laboratory “PKE-Nefedov” was in use from 2001 to 2005, followed by “PK-3 Plus” for a further seven years. The “PK-4” laboratory has been in operation since 2014 and, like the previous projects, is a German / European-Russian success story. PK-4 is a cooperation of the European space agency ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with scientific leadership of the group “Complex Plasmas” of the DLR Institute for Materials Physics in Space (formerly at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, MPE) and the Russian Academy of Sciences (Joint Institute for High Temperatures, JIHT). The experiments are controlled from the CADMOS control center in Toulouse, France, and most recently from the DLR German Space Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen. The experimental hardware is an in-house development of the group during their time at MPE and the OHB System AG (formerly Kayser Threde).  Additional funding for the project in Germany was provided by Max Planck Society and the German space agency at DLR which has supported plasma research on board the ISS from the very beginning.

PK-4 shows once again in an impressive way the great potential that research with complex plasmas on the International Space Station still has, even after two decades. This is also seen internationally in this way. Therefore, the German Space Agency at DLR is currently discussing the possibilities for a follow-up experiment to PK-4 with the name “COMPACT” together with NASA, ESA, ROSKOSMOS and the world’s leading scientists:

“With this new experimental facility, the success story of research with complex Plasmas are to be continued and enriched by another exciting chapter ”, is the outlook from Dr. Thomas Driebe, program manager for physics and materials research at the German Space Agency at DLR.