Startups challenge gravity to explore the trade frontiers of space | Science


In a cramped office tucked away in the dimly lit corridors of a mall in Israel, it is the equivalent of control of NASA's Houston mission.

However, there are no queues of scientists and flight controllers wearing headphones, all the faces fixed on a large spacecraft. And there are no astronauts saying they have a problem.

Instead, three large computer screens display a world map showing a satellite, roughly the size of a large shoebox, orbiting the globe. It is one of many private, autonomous "space labs" conducting experiments for paying clients, including pharmaceutical companies, universities and chemical companies.

This is the new frontier of exploration and space research. Huge and slow government agencies, like NASA, no longer have a monopoly. The industry traded, opening space for large aerospace companies, including SpaceX and Boeing, but also courageous startups that exploit increasingly cheaper access to the skies.

Israel's SpacePharma is trying to exploit an emerging space industry: experimentation on microgravity.

At the heart of what it offers is the ability to run tests in a situation that is currently impossible to replicate on the planet – an environment with zero gravity or very close to zero gravity. And without gravity, an inevitable constant that has always restricted all experiments, a new field of science promises breakthroughs.

A nanosatellite being installed

A technician installs a SpacePharma nanosatellite before launching a rocket made in India in 2017. Photo: Disclosure

"In space, everything is different," said Yair Glick, director of research and development at SpacePharma. Almost nothing – chemicals, plants and even human cells – behave in the same way in microgravity as on Earth.

Even the simplest experiment produces new results: "If we mix water with oil, we know that water goes down and oil. It's not like that in space, "Glick said.

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National space agencies have been conducting microgravity research for decades, usually on the effects of astronauts' muscles and bones, but also on how it affects other elements, such as flames – they do not blink up but form a ball.

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The results were surprising. An experiment conducted by Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency examined the proteins associated with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which mainly affects boys and leaves them immobile.

Proteins, the building blocks of cells, crystallize differently in space as they are relieved by the strength and shape of the Earth in a more orderly way. Researchers have managed to register their new structure and make drugs that drastically delay the effects of the disease. Its creators claim that it could double the life expectancy of patients and keep them walking up to age 25, instead of 12.

Rich Godwin runs the US company Space Technology Holding, which conducts research in space and applies them to the real world market. The commercial microgravity test is a potentially huge market, he believes, and expects more success by privatizing. "It's not changing chemistry. It's changing physics, "he said. "It's like the invention of the microscope."

Yossi Yamin, CEO and founder of SpacePharma, estimates that there are about 30 private companies selling microgravity experiments.

There are three main ways to do this. The first can be done on Earth by renting an airplane and diving in parabolic flight, simulating the absence of weight. But the process is extremely inaccurate and lasts only a few seconds.


And so #microgravity it looks like ours #headofengineering #parabolicflight 5 Science of life #experiments on board #dubendorf #Switzerland

October 26, 2016

Instead, most companies rent space 400 kilometers from the International Space Station, which acts as a kind of real estate agent for Earth's low orbit. They make small automatic labs that are shipped on a rocket, usually when the astronauts are delivered, and are connected to the wall. In these, liquids can be heated, cooled and small automatic pumps allow customers to mix chemicals.

SpacePharma also provides free roaming satellites that orbit Earth independently. His first was sent on an Indian rocket in 2017.

Indian satellite launch mission video

In the small office in Herzliya, a city that is Israel's technological center, nanosatellite is handmade in a laboratory with a plastic 3D printer and soldering table. "If you have autonomous mobile units, you can command them and control them from your cell phone," said Yamin, who worked for the Israeli Army's fleet of satellites for 25 years.

Each satellite costs about 2.4 million pounds, but has enough room for 12 customers whose experiments can be run simultaneously, dramatically reducing cost. The commercial space research business is worth about half a billion, he estimates. But he's betting on a boom in the market.

Pharmaceutical companies are looking to create drugs in space that are more effective than those on Earth. Once these more perfect proteins are formed, they can be used as "seeds" to duplicate on Earth. "These are orbiting masterpieces," said Yamin.

The next stage in the field of microgravity, industry experts believe, will be "space factories," where materials that can only be made in space are fabricated.

Twyman Clements, chief executive of Space Tango, an American company that began launching last year and conducted 88 experiments in space, including one commissioned by Budweiser on barley and another that analyzed how cannabis reacts in space. But now it is moving to make products in space and bring them back.

"This is not just about research. It has scalable application, "said Clements, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky and made his own rockets. "We analyzed high-value microgravity products for Earth," he said. They need to have a high price because it costs a lot to send material up and down.

There are already customers looking to manufacture fiber optic cables, which are more efficient when fabricated in space. And another product that could be produced in orbit are retinal implants to restore vision, which are made of light-activated proteins, but do not form well on Earth under their own weight. The Space Tango is looking like this could make them into space.

"The next steps are for production," Clements said. "That has not happened yet. Impacts of the retina may be the first. "

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