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Israel is home to a startup known as SpacePharma. One of many private autonomous “space labs” performing experiments for paying clients such as pharmaceutical firms, universities, and chemical companies. They represent the new frontier of space exploration and research.
NASA, a large but slow-moving government agency no longer holds a monopoly. The sector has been commercialized, allowing the presence of large aerospace companies like SpaceX and Boeing, but also smaller startups who wish to exploit the increasingly cheaper access to space.
SpacePharma is focused on one emerging aspect of the space industry: microgravity experimentation.
One of the primary services this startup offers is the ability to run tests in a situation that is currently impossible to replicate on Earth– a zero gravity, or a nearly zero gravity, environment. Without gravity, an unavoidable constant that has forever restricted every experiment, a new field of science is breaking ground.
Yair Glick, the research and development director at SpacePharma, explained that in space, everything is different, almost nothing – chemicals, plants and even human cells – act the same way in microgravity as they do on our planet.
Even the most straightforward experiment generates new results. For example, Glick said, if they mix water with oil, they know the water goes down, and the oil stays on top, but this is not the case in space.
National space agencies have been researching microgravity for decades, often about the effects of muscles and bones of astronauts, but also on how it affects other elements, for instance, flames, which don’t flicker upwards but instead form a ball.
The results have been fascinating. One experiment performed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency focused on the proteins linked to Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which mostly affects young boys and leaves them immobile.
Proteins are the building blocks of cells, and they crystallize differently in space when they are untroubled by the Earth’s pull. They form in a more orderly way. Researchers recorded their new structure and were capable of making medicine that dramatically delays the effects of the disease. Its creators stated that it could potentially double the lifespan of patients and keep them walking until 25, instead of 12.
Rich Godwin is in charge of the US firm Space Technology Holding, which applies the research that was conducted in space to the real-world market. Godwin believes that commercial microgravity testing has the potential to be a massive market and expects more and more success as it privatizes. He explained that this research is not changing chemistry, it’s changing physics. Adding that it’s like the invention of the microscope.
The chief executive and founder of SpacePharma, Yossi Yamin, estimates there are approximately 30 private companies selling microgravity experiments.
They do so in three main ways. The first is done on Earth by renting a plane and nose diving in parabolic flight, as this simulates weightlessness. However, the process is very imprecise and only lasts a few seconds.
Thus, most companies rent space 250 miles up on the International Space Station, which functions as a sort of real estate for low Earth orbit. They make small automatic laboratories that are sent upon a rocket, usually when astronauts are being sent there too. They are then plugged into the wall. In these makeshift labs, liquids can be heated, cooled, and small automatic pumps enable their customers to mix chemicals.
When it comes to the startup SpacePharma, they offer free-roaming satellites, which orbit the Earth independently. Its first was sent up on an Indian rocket in 2017.
Their nanosatellites are handmade in a small office in the city of Herzliya, the tech hub of Israel. Yamin, who worked for the Israeli army’s satellite fleet for 25 years, explained that if you have autonomous mobile units, you can command and control them from your mobile.
The price of each satellite is approximately £2.4m but has enough space for 12 clients, whose experiments can run simultaneously, which significantly reduces the cost. Furthermore, Yamin estimates that the commercial space research business is worth about half a billion, but he is betting on a market boom.
For instance, pharmaceutical companies are trying to find ways to create drugs in space that are more effective than those made on our planet. Once these more-perfect proteins are formed, they can be used as “seeds” to duplicate back on Earth.
According to industry insiders, the next step in the field of microgravity will be “space factories” where materials that can only be made in space are produced.
For example, Space Tango a US firm that began launches last year has performed 88 experiments in space, like one commissioned by Budweiser on barley and another that looked at how cannabis reacts in space. They are now moving into making products in space and bringing them back to Earth.
What’s more, customers are already looking to make fibre optic cables, which are more efficient when produced in space. While another product that could be made in orbit are retinal implants to restore vision, they are made from light-activated proteins but do not form well on Earth under their own weight. Space Tango is now looking into how they could make them in space.
Thus, the next steps for Space Tango will be toward production. Although it has not happened quite yet, the retinal impacts could be the first.
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