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Kiwi team funded $9.9m to take biology research into space

30 November 2023

An interdisciplinary team led by a stellar Canterbury academic is taking one giant leap into a new sector of the global aerospace industry.


Image Caption: Dr Sarah Kessans has received $9.87 million to develop research platforms in microgravity specifically related to protien crystallisation.

Dr Sarah Kessans, a senior lecturer in Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury School of Product Design has received $9.87 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment  Endeavour Fund to develop research platforms in microgravity, specifically related to protein crystallisation.

Protein crystals grown in microgravity are often higher quality than crystals grown in controls on Earth, and can be used to generate higher resolution protein structures. This allows researchers in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to acquire previously inaccessible data for use in a wide range of biomedical and life sciences applications.

The Endeavour funding will enable the research team to build on their previously developed protein crystallisation prototype towards fully automated crystallisation facilities ready for future commercial space station research. The funding will allow the team to design, fabricate, and test specialised hardware and software subsystems and then validate the complete designs in microgravity through their partnership with United States-based company Axiom Space.

Dr Kessans says this work underpins the development of an entirely new sector of the aerospace industry in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“The research and the future commercial outputs from the programme sit at the interface between aerospace and biotechnology, two increasingly valuable sectors of the New Zealand economy. We have the opportunity to expand the offerings of both, while developing globally leading research capabilities from right here in Canterbury.”

Axiom Space is a leading provider of human spaceflight services and developer of human-rated space infrastructure including the world’s first commercial space station in low-Earth orbit – Axiom Station. The partnership with Axiom Space will allow Kiwi researchers to make regular, frequent, and cost-effective missions to the International Space Station (ISS), and following the ISS’s scheduled retirement, to Axiom Station, due to launch its first module to the ISS in 2026.

Key members of the research team include Associate Professor Volker Nock, from UC’s Faculty of Engineering, Professor Cather Simpson and Dr Freddy Lyzwa from the University of Auckland, and Professor Alexandra Ros from Arizona State University. Industry collaborators include David Wright of Asteria Engineering Consulting, and Dave Sanders and Aleksandar Lazic of Intranel Consulting.

While New Zealand is currently a smaller player on the global aerospace stage, Dr Kessans believes we have a reputation as global leaders, particularly for our focus on values and sustainability.

Alongside UC Kaiārahi Rangahau Māori Sarah Wiki-Bennett, Dr Kessans will be collaborating with the Tāwhaki Joint Venture, a partnership between Kaitorete mana whenua - Te Taumutu Rūnanga, Wairewa Rūnanga, and the New Zealand Government.

Tāwhaki has established Aotearoa New Zealand’s National Aerospace Centre at Kaitorete – one of the world’s best locations to take flight - to launch and discover new horizons. As an indigenous-led partnership, Tāwhaki is weaving together mātauranga Māori (Indigenous knowledge) and innovation in aerospace and environmental rejuvenation.

“This is world-leading and globally unique,” Dr Kessans says. “As part of our programme, I’m looking forward to supporting the Tāwhaki kaupapa, and working closely to inspire more rangatahi Māori to pursue careers in aerospace, and to increase Māori participation and leadership in the sector.”

Picture of Woman Looking Towards Sky

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