Why Go To Space?

For Life Science Research.

︎ 21 April 2023

︎Written by Dr. Katie King

Katie is Microgravity Research Lead for Frontier Space Technologies, a company building hardware for life science experiments in Space. She is also the CEO of Bio-Orbit, an early stage start up looking into the benefits of space for pharmaceutical production.

Katie is passionate about the use of Space for the benefit of life on Earth and is writing a series of blog posts investigating ‘Why go to Space?’ for Research, Business & Technology and Education.

What do we use space for?

How do we on Earth use space? What comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the satellites we depend on for GPS and telecommunications, or the threat of space debris. Maybe you think of space tourists, or are concerned about the environmental impact this may have on our planet. Or instead, you feel inspired by the astronauts who explore outside of our atmosphere, and want to follow in their footsteps.

I want to shine a spotlight on a space activity that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves – science research in space. The International Space Station (ISS) has had a continuous human presence for over 20 years and has been a hub for scientific research with over 3,000 experiments performed. These experiments have ranged from quantum computing to physiology investigations to alloy fabrication, all of which are impacted by the extreme conditions of space.

How does space impact Life Science research?

Microgravity causes several changes in biological systems, from viruses to humans! Experiments on the ISS have demonstrated that in microgravity, gene expression can be altered, and ageing and certain diseases such as osteoporosis are accelerated. Through using accelerated models for disease in space, it is possible to test a range of drugs that may slow down disease progression to aid drug development back on Earth.

3D cell cultures such as organoids can be fabricated with higher quality compared to those made on Earth. Organoids are small organ tissues, which more accurately replicate an organ in our body compared to traditional 2D cell culture. These avatars for disease can then be used to test ideas about disease and treatment. Organoid research will deepen our understanding of cancer progression, brain development and reduce our dependence on animal testing, saving millions of animal lives annually.

It is not only the realms of R&D that can benefit from a space environment - certain drugs can benefit from being manufactured in space. This is due to microgravity aiding the crystallisation process. Crystallisation of certain drugs will enable lifesaving treatments to be administered subcutaneously rather than intravenously. This, combined with increased shelf life and less extreme storage conditions, could improve treatments in remote areas far away from hospitals. As space becomes more accessible for science, we will continue to see more benefits to those on Earth.

Using remote pharmacy supplies for patient care on our Analogue Mission
Photo credit: John Dickens

The future of space research

Traditionally, sending an experiment to space has been prohibitively expensive for most researchers, with long wait times for an experiment to travel to and from the ISS. This paradigm is undergoing a large shift, whereby new commercial organisations, such as SpaceX, are driving down the cost of launch and increasing the regularity of flights. This now renders the commercial use of space a more viable option than previously.

Analogue missions on Earth are further increasing the ease and accessibility of space research. Locations that are remote, resource limited and subject to extreme weather can replicate these aspects of space, at high quality and at lower cost to the researchers and the Planet. These simulations are well placed to test new technologies by the analogue astronauts immersed in them.

Back in outer space, 2030 will mark the end of the International Space Station. It will be replaced by several commercial space stations – Axiom, Orbital Reef, and Starlab, to name a few. This change from government agency dominance to commercial providers will bring big changes in how Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is used across a wide range of applications.

Analogue missions on Earth are further increasing the ease and accessibility of space research.

 In an analogous way to government space shuttles being replaced by commercial ones, and the ISS replaced by entities such as Axiom, scientific hardware is also undergoing a commercial shift. Space Pharma, Prometheus, Yuri, Ice CUBES, Redwire, and Frontier Space Technologies are a few companies developing a range of hardware and science experiments for use in space. The Space sector was valued at $424 billion in 2020 and is predicted to be a $1.25-1.4 trillion market by 2040, reflecting this paradigm shift.*

Our world (and just beyond it) is changing fast, with many opportunities to utilise space to benefit all those on Earth. Research in Space is an important part of this and growing in relevance and applicability daily. The question is – how will we maximise the opportunities to benefit all those on Earth?