Published: 05.11.07
Space Biology

Safely back from space

The experiments looked after by ETH Zurich’s Space Biology in the International Space Station have returned to Earth safely. Now the analysis begins.

Thomas Langholz

KUBIK is the name of the small cube with several experiments that a Russian Soyuz rocket carried from the Baikonur Cosmodrome to the ISS International Space Station. The experiments were planned and prepared by the Swiss Biotechnology Space Support Center (BIOTESC). BIOTESC is a part of the Space Biology facility of ETH Zurich. It is where space experiments are prepared, test runs carried out and experiments monitored from Zurich as they take place in space.

A long preparation period

The “Bio-3” mission that has now been completed studied the effect of weightlessness on plants, bacteria and blood cells. However, many preparations are needed before an experiment flies off into space. The BIOTESC scientists need about a year to test all the experiments enough for them to be able to go on their journey. The so-called Kubik is the core of the experiments. This incubator measuring 36 x 36 centimetres houses the individual containers known as cassettes in which the experiments take place. In addition to the individual experiments, the researchers must also concern themselves with the operating procedures in space. Sonia Vadrucci, a scientist at BIOTESC, says “The experiments should be scientifically relevant but easy to perform at the same time.” The entire procedure is tested beforehand on the ground in a “sequence test”, which includes paying attention to ease of handling for the astronauts. Vadrucci says “After all, we can’t just quickly send a biologist along if something malfunctions.” All the astronauts are given training. The BIOTESC scientists of ETH Zurich are available to give advice if there are any queries.

Centrifuged to conditions on Earth

After arriving in space, part of the samples is centrifuged to the Earth’s gravitational acceleration as a “1g control”. Sonia Vadrucci explains: “That gives us two comparison samples, one under weightlessness conditions, the other under conditions on Earth. There is a basic distinction between manual experiments and those performed automatically. For experiments taking place automatically, the experiment is started by the astronaut, after which it proceeds autonomously inside the cassette. A manual procedure may for example require the astronaut to add a liquid. Vadrucci says “This must never involve toxic liquids in particular escaping from the containers.” For example research is taking place on blood cells. This involved investigating why the cell signals of white blood cells (leucocytes) are not communicated as well in weightlessness as on the Earth. Leukocytes are responsible for defence against pathogens. This could be one reason why astronauts’ immune systems are not as active in space as on Earth.

New missions

The Kubik’s advantage lies in its easy, flexible handling. After it arrives at the space station, it is simply connected to the electricity supply and is then ready to operate. The next Kubik mission, “BIO-4”, is already planned for late September 2008.

The BIOTESC researchers are currently preparing for a new mission. The European Columbus space laboratory will be carried to the ISS in December. ETH Zurich researchers together with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) are responsible for the BIOLAB. Vadrucci explains that “We can perform more complex experiments there, and will already obtain a quantity of data during the mission. For example it is possible to call up a live video about the growth of a plant.” The “Harmony” link module to which the Columbus space laboratory will be docked was successfully brought into operation in space last Saturday.

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