The Italian Almanac

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Roberto Vittoei

Space Nosed

Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori is preparing for his third trip to the International Space Station (ISS), where he will test an Italian-designed sensor unveiled at Perugia University. The 'electronic nose', selected for the mission by the Italian Space Agency and NASA, is a highly sophisticated device able to detect various odours. The sensor is designed to identify numerous scents that human noses are unable to detect, and, in particular, to pinpoint those that are dangerous.

The result of a long-running project between the university's engineering faculty, Rome's Tor Vergata University and a private Perugian venture, a previous version of the electronic nose ventured into space with Vittori on his last mission in 2005. However, the latest model aims to correct problems with the earlier version and incorporate state-of-the-art technological developments. As well as identifying any anomalies on board the space station, the device is also being tested for future use on Earth.

Discussing the importance of the experiment during a teleconferencing call from Houston, where he is training for the upcoming mission, Vittori suggested that medical environments were the most likely applications, particularly intensive care units and operating rooms.

The 45-year-old astronaut will be part of a six-person team making the voyage to the ISS on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This will be Vittori's first and last trip to the station aboard the US shuttle, which has been arranged under a bilateral agreement between the Italian Space Agency and NASA. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft ferried him to the ISS on his two previous visits in 2002 and 2005. On each occasion, he worked at the station carrying out experiments for 10 days.

The mission will mark a record for Vittori, who will become the first European astronaut to make the journey three times.