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UC scientist funded to fire biochemistry experiments into space

12 November 2019

University of Canterbury (UC) researcher Dr Sarah Kessans has been funded $500,000 to take biochemistry to new heights.


Dr Sarah Kessans has been funded $500,000 to take biochemistry to new heights.

University of Canterbury (UC) researcher Dr Sarah Kessans has been funded $500,000 to take biochemistry to new heights.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)’s Catalyst: Strategic Space 2019 fund will support her proposal to develop nanosatellites for protein crystallisation over the next three years.

Dr Kessans and her team of researchers will work on developing nanosatellites and biological payloads.

“Conducting biological experiments in space allows for both a more complete understanding of life on Earth as well as the development of life support capabilities which will enable advanced human space exploration and future off-Earth habitation,” she says.

Protein crystallisation is an essential method for determining protein structures, used globally by academic teams, pharmaceutical companies, and the biotechnology industry. Protein crystallisation experiments on the International Space Station have illustrated the benefits of a microgravity environment for producing high quality protein crystals that are otherwise intractable on Earth.

“Unfortunately, the current options for Kiwi researchers to conduct research in microgravity environments are quite limited. To expand opportunities for researchers in New Zealand and around the globe to use microgravity for essential protein crystallisation experiments, we are developing a nanosatellite-based space biology laboratory for crystallising proteins in low Earth orbit,” Dr Kessans says.

“With the cost of small satellite development and deployment decreasing and the availability of launches increasing, there now exists a cost-effective platform with which to use these satellites for advanced biotechnological research as well as commercial R&D applications.”

“To this end, we've assembled an exemplary team of researchers both in New Zealand (from the universities of Canterbury and Auckland) and abroad (Arizona State University) to develop these satellites. With initial funding from the NSC’s Science for Technological Innovation Seed Fund, we've been able to get the programme off the ground. The MBIE Catalyst funding will allow us to establish critical partnerships between our international research team, NASA research centres, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). These partnerships will not only advance our own research, they will create new global opportunities for New Zealand's emerging space sector.”

Currently a research fellow in the UC School of Biological Sciences, Dr Kessans will commence a lectureship in the UC School of Product Design in January 2020. Now a proud Kiwi, Sarah came to New Zealand from the United States, where she earned degrees in plant biology and molecular biology and worked to develop a plant-based HIV vaccine.

Earlier this year, she helped UC students fire a rocket 31,000 feet carrying the first biological experiments launched and recovered from a rocket in New Zealand. The rocket, dubbed ‘Into the Blue’, was designed and built by the student-led UC Aerospace team at the University of Canterbury.

MBIE’s Catalyst: Strategic Space 2019 fund investment in satellite and space vehicle technologies aims to support the development of space sector capability in New Zealand.

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