Monday, April 22, 2024

NZ research to board international space station

In a historic first, University of Canterbury research experiments will soon orbit Earth in microgravity aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A research facility small enough to fit in your hand is scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Mission CRS-30 this month, in an uncrewed mission to the ISS – marking New Zealand’s first experimental payload onboard the ISS.

SpaceX CRS-30 is funded by NASA and the project is being facilitated by Axiom Space and sponsored by the ISS National Laboratory.

A unique facility for studying protein crystal growth in space was developed by University of Canterbury (UC) Engineering Senior Lecturer, Dr Sarah Kessans at the School of Product Design, in collaboration with teams from Arizona State University and Christchurch companies Asteria Engineering Consultancy and Intranel.

Her research facility is a small, self-contained, autonomous prototype that will enable on-orbit analysis of hundreds of experimental conditions. By developing this facility, Dr Kessans hopes even more research can be conducted at a lower cost in the future.

“When protein crystals are grown in microgravity, they can develop into larger and higher quality crystals than we can grow on Earth. These crystals can then be used to create high-resolution pictures of the protein’s structure. If we have a detailed picture of what virus proteins look like, for example, we can develop things like antiviral drugs and vaccines,” Dr Kessans says.

Research teams across the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries rely on data from protein crystallisation experiments for new drug and product development, and the facilities Dr Kessans’ team is developing will establish valuable microgravity opportunities for both commercial and academic research teams which may not have previously considered microgravity research as a viable option. 

“Partnering with Axiom Space and being able to conduct this research on the ISS is such a huge opportunity and really is critical to what we’re trying to achieve in terms of scientific innovation and future commercial outcomes,” says Dr Kessans, who is heading to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA, to watch the rocket launch her history-making payload lift-off for the ISS in mid-March.

In addition to the main facility prototype, a second related payload will include research on proteins involved in infectious disease, cancer, dementia, and the production of high-value compounds. This payload represents a collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach involving five different UC departments – Product Design, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Biological Sciences, and Physical and Chemical Sciences.

The proteins onboard the second prototype also come from laboratories across New Zealand including the University of Canterbury (Professor Volker Nock, Dr Vanessa Morris, Dr Jodie Johnston and Daniel Mak), University of Otago (Dr Christoph Goebl), Victoria University of Wellington (Dr Daniel Berry, Professor Emily Parker and Dr Chelsea Vickers), and University of Waikato (Dr Joanna Hicks, Dr Adele Williamson, and Dr William Keaton) as well as American researchers from Arizona State University (Professor Petra Fromme and Professor Alexandra Ros).

The data garnered from the pair of payloads will inform future facility development and support the generation of high-quality protein structures to assist in the treatment of disease and more efficient manufacturing of high-value pharmaceutical and agricultural compounds.

Dr Kessans is passionate about developing opportunities to conduct biological research in space and received seed funding from the NZ Government’s MBIE Catalyst: Strategic Space 2019 fund and MBIE Innovative Partnerships for her research.  

“We are excited to support the first New Zealand research to be carried to the International Space Station. This is a milestone in New Zealand’s Space sector,” MBIE’s Innovative Partnerships Director Joe McKay says.

“We are a proud partner with Axiom Space to help make this possible. There’s no doubt it will help New Zealand researchers advance world-leading space science and technology. We look forward to the next steps in Sarah’s research.”

Dr Kessans’ research received $90,000 for a feasibility study and $760,000 for the initial mission to the International Space Station. Last year the Endeavour Fund awarded a further $9.87 million over five years for the continuation of the project. Axiom Space has already successfully completed three private missions to ISS and is building the first commercial space station.

“Axiom Space is proud to support this historic mission for New Zealand and delighted to partner with Dr Kessans and her team to support the development and launch of this research facility,” said Axiom Space’s chief scientist, Dr Lucie Low.

“Axiom Space is building new commercial markets in microgravity, and we look forward furthering opportunities for New Zealand to harness the advantages of microgravity for commercial and academic purposes.”

MBIE signed an agreement with US commercial space company Axiom Space in 2022 to help New Zealand researchers advance world-leading space science and technology, including aboard the ISS. As part of the agreement, MBIE has funded two feasibility studies on behalf of the NZ Government, which includes Dr Kessans’ research into crystallising proteins in microgravity. The research offers insights for synthetic biology research and manufacturing of pharmaceuticals.  

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