Testing the Limits of Spectroscopy Aboard the International Space Station
Ocean Optics and the Human Spaceflight Department at OHB System AG in Bremen, Germany, under contract with the European Space Agency (ESA), have collaborated successfully on the deployment of a customized Flame model UV-Visible spectrometer aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The SPECTRODemo technology demonstrator prior to launch. Photo courtesy of OHB.
The spectrometer is part of OHB’s SPECTRODemo project, which launched on Apr. 17, 2019. SPECTRODemo is designed for in-flight testing of key functions of the spectrometer, as a precursor of the instrument that will be installed on the future Exobiology Facility developed by the ESA. On the Exobiology Facility, which is exposed to the space environment, the spectrometer will be used to analyze biological and non-biological samples in space, monitoring changes in the absorption spectra of samples over time and revealing the chemical consequences of exposure to solar radiation. Recently, we interviewed Antonella Sgambati, OHB’s Senior System Engineer for Human Spaceflight, on the progress of the mission, the larger impact of space exploration, and her experience as a woman in the space industry.
Ocean Optics (OO): The SPECTRODemo system launched Apr. 17, 2019. How is the project progressing?
Antonella Sgambati (AS): The payload is on board the ISS, installed in the ICE Cubes Facility, and running autonomously since Apr. 25. [Editor’s note: ICE Cubes is a test and research area – about the size of a drawer -- inside the ESA’s Columbus Laboratory, a research module.] The system is working without anomalies and spectra are collected on ground for monitoring potential changes in the performance of the optical chain. The spectrometer data are consistent with the results of the acceptance testing performed on the ground.
OO: Can you provide more detail on how the spectral testing is being carried out? Is the spectrometer setup exposed directly to space?
AS: The ESA is developing a novel Exobiology Facility to be accommodated outside the ISS. One of the key instruments on board is the UV-Visible spectrometer. For this reason, SPECTRODemo has been developed as precursor demonstrator to increase the maturity of the complete optical chain (spectrometer and fiber switch). The demonstrator is currently located inside the ISS, not outside. Nevertheless, it will provide useful outcomes for the upcoming flight development for the Exobiology Facility, mainly with respect to operation, durability and reliability. The configuration is based on continuous spectra acquisition over 6 channels. Each channel is recording a spectrum from a defined LED source through a calibrated neutral density filter (fixed absorbance value).
The first spectra captured aboard the ISS shows the output of a 490 nm LED. Image courtesy of OHB.
OO: What do you want to accomplish with this mission? What will you consider a success?
AS: The system will operate for 75 days in autonomous mode and the data made directly available to the User Home Base in OHB-Bremen’s Human Spaceflight Department. The main success criteria are the confirmation of the current design and component selection for the future Exobiology Facility. The demonstrator will be sent back to Earth and further investigation on the single components will be done to consolidate our choices.
OO: Let’s step back a bit. Tell us about OHB and its mission, and your role as Senior System Engineer for Human Spaceflight.
AS: OHB System AG is a space business division of OHB SE, a European multinational technology corporation. With over 37 years of experience in high technology, together with its integrated skills in the areas of space technology and telematics, OHB Group is ideally positioned as one of the leading independent forces in the European space, aeronautics and telematics industry. The Human Spaceflight Department at OHB System has its roots in the early steps of the company. [The late] Prof. Manfred Fuchs was one of the pioneers in the establishment of the European Columbus Module on the ISS, also assigning its name. My role in the Human Spaceflight Department mainly involves the development, manufacturing and testing of several crucial technologies, which will be executed on board the unique manned space laboratory represented by the ISS.
OO: Tell us a little more about the experimentation on the ISS and its overall significance.
AS: The evolution of the solar system and the origin of life remain some of the most intriguing questions for humankind. Addressing these questions experimentally is challenging due to the difficulty to mimic environmental conditions representative of early Earth and space conditions in general in ground-based laboratories. Performing experiments directly in space offers the great chance to overcome some of these obstacles and to possibly find answers to these questions. Exposure platforms in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with the possibility for long-duration solar exposure are ideal for investigating the effects of solar and cosmic radiation on various biological and non-biological samples.
OO: What first inspired your interest in space?
AS: I started with paleontological studies. Discovering and exploring things always has been my main interest and curiosity. Then, I accompanied a friend to the Engineering University in Naples [Italy] for his application. I read the college’s brochure and learned they offered various engineering fields. I thought that reaching space and bringing results back to Earth would be a boost for enhancing human knowledge … so I changed my focus and took a major in space. I have been involved in ISS payload development since 2001!
OO: Historically, women have been underrepresented in the space industry. How has that affected your career? Are there more opportunities for women now than when you started?
AS: As woman, I had to face the problem of demonstrating my capabilities more than my colleagues at university. In the space class, I was the only woman! Later, in business, I learned how to stand for my point of view and ensure the fair way to be heard. Since 2015, I have been the coordinator of the Bremen local group of the Women in Aerospace Europe (WIA-E) organization. One goal of WIA-E is to expand the opportunities of women in leadership positions and increase their visibility in the space industry by creating a network in Europe and worldwide. Sometimes women don’t even apply for a job, if they don’t fulfil 100% of the requirements of the position. Equal awareness between men and women must be conveyed from the very beginning. Even in kindergarten or primary school, genders are often separated; this must stop. Times are changing but a lot of steps are still needed to be done. The main improvement should occur in the culture [first].
Antonella Sgambati (left) encourages women to pursue careers in space as a local coordinator for Women in Aerospace-Europe. Here she shares a moment with a friend at a promotional event for the organization. Photo courtesy A. Sgambati.
OO: Some of your work – using space exploration to learn more about the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life – seems almost to have a spiritual element to it. How can science tell us more about ourselves and how we got here?
AS: Up to now, the ISS has been a unique environment that can foster our knowledge of space as well as bring benefits to our daily life on Earth. NASA’s website has a good description of the major benefits of the ISS. In the areas of human health, telemedicine, education and observations of Earth from space, there are already demonstrated benefits to human life. Vaccine development research, station-generated images that assist with disaster relief and farming, and education programs that inspire future scientists, engineers and space explorers are just some examples of research benefits.
OO: Your work takes place here on Earth. Would you like to travel in space one day? What would that be like for you?
AS: I would love travelling to space but I suffer from claustrophobia!
OO: Let’s wrap this up with a less serious question. If you had to choose one movie that most closely matches the experience of space exploration, what would it be?
AS: Even with the high degree of artistic freedom, I loved Interstellar, a science fiction movie, and the idea of other habitable worlds near a black hole. # # # Learn more about the SPECTRODemo project.