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Canterbury research to fly on International Space Station

19 April 2023

A research facility prototype developed at the University of Canterbury will soon orbit Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS).


UC scientist Dr Sarah Kessans at Axiom Mission Control.

The facility for studying protein crystal growth in space has been developed by Senior Lecturer Dr Sarah Kessans at the University of Canterbury’s School of Product Design, in collaboration with teams from Arizona State University and Christchurch companies Asteria Engineering Consultancy and Intranel.

Dr Kessans is passionate about developing opportunities to conduct biological research in space and has received seed funding from MBIE’s Catalyst: Strategic Space 2019 fund for her research. Her research facility is scheduled to fly on Axiom Mission 3 (Ax-3) later this year, which will be the third private astronaut mission to the ISS.

Dr Sarah Kessans Dr Sarah Kessans discusses the value of microgravity protein crystallisation with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who was one of the first to perform these experiments in space, at the University of Canterbury in March. (Photo credit: U.S. Embassy photographer Ola Thorsen).

“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,” Dr Kessans says.

“When protein crystals are grown in microgravity, they can develop into larger and higher quality crystals than what 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.”

Current facilities for protein crystal growth on the Space Station require significant time and resources for astronauts to mix samples, set up experiments, observe growth and adjust settings as needed. By developing a facility that is self-contained, autonomous, and allows for on-orbit analysis of thousands of experimental conditions, Dr Kessans hopes even more research can be conducted at a lower cost into the future. Research teams across the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries rely on data from protein crystallisation experiments for new drug and product development, and the facilities 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.

“We can do a lot of analysis up in microgravity and can gain a great deal of information from the real-time data that we will be able to downlink during the experimentation on the ISS. But the real value is in being able to get those experiments back to researchers on Earth for further analysis,” she says.

“That’s why we’re excited to be sending the first prototype of our facilities to the International Space Station with Axiom Space. This initial project represents just the beginning of what we hope to develop into an entirely new industry in New Zealand at the interface between aerospace and biotechnology, two high-value, rapidly growing, and increasingly important sectors of the economy.”

It was one of two projects selected for initial feasibility studies in 2022 under a partnership between the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and US space company Axiom Space.

“This facility could lead to major advances in medical, biotechnological, food science, and agricultural innovation and we are excited to support the next step,” MBIE Director of Innovative Partnerships Joe McKay says.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s partnership with Axiom Space, especially as they transition to operation of their future commercial space station in low-Earth orbit, will create opportunities for commercial microgravity research. New Zealand has also joined Axiom Space’s Access Program, an initiative to grow space ecosystems alongside governments from around the world.

“This membership is a natural move for New Zealand, which is already contributing to projects that will fly on future Axiom Space missions,” McKay says.

Dr Sarah Kessans and Bill Nelson Dr Sarah Kessans presents a prototype of the protein crystallisation facility which will fly later this year to the ISS to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy at the University of Canterbury in March. (Photo credit: U.S. Embassy photographer Ola Thorsen).

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