Sartorius Facts
Jul 25, 2022
| 3 min read

Life Science and Beyond

How Sartorius Technologies Support Research in Space

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first man to take a step on the moon. This “giant leap for mankind” also marked the beginning of Sartorius’ involvement in several space missions. The company’s technology was not only used to analyze samples of moon rock brought back to earth – eventually, one of its instruments made it on board a space shuttle and was taken to the International Space Station (ISS).

This article is posted on Sartorius Blog.

First Contact – Weighing a part of the moon

When Germans speak about a very special moment, they metaphorically call it a "Sternstunde" (meaning “star hour”). Mankind experienced such a “star hour” in a literal sense in July 1969 when the first moon landing with a manned crew was carried out as part of the Apollo 11 mission. Part of what they brought back to earth later found its way to Göttingen.

Following the mission, Sartorius received a sample of the moon rock and lunar dust from the Institute of Nuclear Chemistry in Cologne, “thanks to mediation by our representatives in the Rhineland”. Such samples were only given to leading institutes around the world at the time. 20.2 milligrams of the “carefully preserved samples” were examined at Sartorius to determine their absolute surface using a high-tech product. The highly sensitive and very versatile universal measuring device "Gravimat", which was almost the size of a cupboard, was used.

After the successful Apollo 11 mission, 20.2 milligrams of lunar rock were examined at Sartorius for its absolute surface using the so-called “Gravimat”, 1969/70 [Image: Sartorius Archive].

Following the study, the Sartorius advertising department used this occasion to send modified reprints of the legendary moon postcard as a Christmas card to customers in Germany and abroad. The great fascination with this historic event resulted in an avalanche of thank-you letters in return: the CEO secretary's office noted in the 1969 yearbook that it was "probably the best advertising idea in years".

"The Sartorius Moon Letter" was sent to customers in Germany and abroad. [Image: Sartorius Archive]

From Apollo 11 to the ISS

Sartorius' "first contact" with space in 1969 was not to be the end of the story. In 2006, a Sartorius instrument to detect the smallest viruses and microorganisms in the air (“AirPort MD8”) was flown to the International Space Station (ISS) via space shuttle for microbiological testing. During the research program “SWAB” (Surface, Water and Air Biocharacterization) pre-, in-, and post-flight samples were collected to determine the basic contamination and evaluate new sources of contamination for the crew members. The instrument also came to be used as part of NASA's "Microbial Tracking -2" study, which was launched in 2016 to catalog and characterize potentially disease-causing microorganisms on board the ISS. The results of the study aim to help assess risks to crew health in a manned spacecraft.

The portable air sampler "AirPort MD8" with a gelatin filter is not only used in (bio)pharmaceutical research and industry as well as in space, but also in hospitals and for measurements in environmental protection and occupational safety [Image: NASA].

China's historic "Chang'e 5" return mission

In 2020, history repeated itself to a certain degree when the People's Republic of China carried out its first ever return mission, and the first return mission of lunar samples by any country since 1976, with the unmanned space orbiter “Chang'e 5”. A good 50 years after Apollo 11 – the very first return mission – Sartorius balances were once again used in a historic mission to gain new insights. Following the return, the samples were handed over to scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where Sartorius balances were used for measurements.

A Sartorius “Cubis” balance in operation, as seen on CCTV news next to the deputy chief of ground application systems of the Chang’e 5 mission. [Image: CCTV, December 6, 2020]

Today, like then, Sartorius technologies enjoy a strong reputation in research projects of this kind. These cooperations throughout the company's history demonstrate the exciting applications of the different products, as well as how Sartorius has continuously been an innovative and reliable partner.

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