Dr Sarah Kessans is a plant biologist and biochemist at the University of Canterbury. Sarah is working with experts from the aerospace community to build a tiny biochemistry lab that will be housed in a CubeSat. Sarah explains how the microgravity in space will benefit her protein crystal experiment.
Sarah has named her tiny lab LUCY – Lysozyme μ (gravity) crystallisation payload.
Questions for discussion:
- How does gravity interfere with how protein crystals grow?
- How does the CubeSat act as a safehouse for LUCY?
- How is the aerospace industry helping Sarah’s research?
Dr Sarah Kessans
Senior Lecturer, School of Product Design, Faculty of Engineering, University of Canterbury
I’m researching protein crystallography, because it’s really important in developing new medicines and understanding biology. Our bodies and all living things are made up of proteins, and it’s really important that we understand what those proteins look like on a very, very small scale. And we can do that with protein crystallography.
Protein crystallography and protein crystal growth is fairly difficult to do on Earth because we’ve got the force of gravity basically pressing down on these proteins, and so it makes the protein crystals very small and sometimes not very pure. But in microgravity, we don’t have those same forces, and so we can get much bigger crystals and much higher purity.
So most of the research that’s being done in microgravity is being done on the International Space Station. It’s quite difficult for New Zealanders to access the International Space Station, because we’re not one of the partner countries. But we have the ability to launch into orbit using our launch partners such as Rocket Lab. It creates new opportunities for Kiwis to get their research into space.
So it is becoming more common to launch experiments on CubeSats, because the cost of CubeSats has gone down, and the launch frequency – so the number of launches to get CubeSats into orbit – has gone up.
This is LUCY right here. LUCY is essentially a miniaturised autonomous protein biochemistry lab that will be able to crystallise her proteins in microgravity. She is an 8 centimetre by 10 centimetre by 10 centimetre miniaturised research laboratory. So we’ve got the protein experiments, and then we’ve got a safe house for LUCY to live in – so it’s temperature controlled and pressure controlled, humidity controlled – and then we have a whole bunch of technology within this tiny little box so we can analyse how and when the proteins are growing.
LUCY is integrated into a larger CubeSat. So LUCY herself doesn’t have orienting hardware, but the CubeSat that houses LUCY will have hardware on it to orient it so that we can get that data back.
My research wouldn’t be at the place it is without Aerospace Christchurch. As a plant biologist and a biochemist, I really need the expertise from around the community, and having that really close-knit community and understanding the different resources and the different businesses out there that can help us develop these spacecraft has been really integral to my research. And as the research advances and as we evolve our manufacturing and fabrication, that community is really key for making sure that we have the resources to carry this out.
Dr Sarah Kessans, University of Canterbury
Micrograph of protein crystals, Taavi Ivan, CC BY-SA 3.0
Animation of protein crystal growth in micro-gravity, 3U CubeSat in lab and multiple CubeSats being launched, NASA astronaut Christina Koch demonstrating micro-gravity and astronaut Alex Gerst working onboard the International Space Station and exteriors of the ISS, NASA, CC BY 3.0
Animation of JAXA’s Epsilon rocket launching and deploying CubeSats, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
Artist’s rendering of rocket deploying CubeSat, from ScienceCasts: NASA embraces small satellites, NASA, CC BY 3.0
Students working on CubeSats at University of Auckland, MBIE
Aerospace networking event, ChristchurchNZ