CASIS Expects To Send First Science Payloads to ISS by Early 2013

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WASHINGTON — The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which was selected by NASA last year to manage nonagency science aboard the international space station (ISS), could send up its first payloads by early 2013, CASIS officials said here May 8.

CASIS has received several unsolicited proposals for Earth observation and technology demonstration experiments that CASIS spokesman Bobby Block said are candidates for the earliest flight opportunities. “They could in theory be among the first things we could fly in 2012 or 2013,” he said.

Block would not identify the source of these proposals or describe the experiments in more detail.

The Capitol Hill briefing CASIS held for reporters here the day the U.S. House of Representatives began debate on its proposed 2013 NASA budget marked the first time CASIS discussed prospective launch dates for its first payload.

The Florida-based nonprofit also revealed more details about its first formal solicitation for ISS-hosted research, which will be released in June.

That call will focus on protein crystallization experiments for which CASIS will provide an unspecified portion of the $3 million in federal funds it reserves each year for grants. The group gets $15 million annually from NASA under its cooperative agreement with the agency, most of which is used to cover operating expenses.

“What we’re looking for are some of those very specific examples of things that can be done better in space than on Earth,” Timothy Yeatman, CASIS’s interim chief scientist, said.

Protein crystallization best fits the bill, Yeatman said, citing the decision of a blue-ribbon panel of science experts CASIS convened to evaluate which scientific fields were likeliest to be advanced through in-space experiments.

In microgravity, protein crystals grown in labs get bigger than they would on Earth. That makes the space-grown crystals easier to image, which in turn makes it easier for drug designers to see how their products would interact, on a molecular level, with proteins in the human body, Yeatman said.

“That will lead to, ultimately, sharper, more defined drug structures,” Yeatman said. “The better the crystal structure, the better the drug.”

CASIS announced in April that it would begin soliciting proposals for space science research in June. The group had not, at that point, announced which research area would be covered by its first proposal. Besides protein crystallization, CASIS also will soon solicit proposals for research into osteoporosis, a degenerative bone condition; muscle wasting; immune system compromise; and the immune system’s ability to trigger the release of disease-fighting antigens into the body.

Congress has designated the U.S. portion of the ISS as a national laboratory. CASIS has access to about half of the lab’s capacity and has been charged with finding non-NASA projects to fill the space.

While CASIS plans a strong focus on life science and medical research, it will also look to use ISS as a technology test bed for products that are either close to commercialization or already commercialized, said Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator for science CASIS recently brought onboard as chief science adviser.

For example, satellite manufacturers could use ISS to experiment with more accurate fuel gauges, which could be the key to prolonging a satellite’s operational life, Stern said.

To reach a graveyard orbit at the end of its operational life, a satellite must carry enough propellant to make its final boost out of geostationary Earth orbit. Without precise means of monitoring fuel levels, operators essentially make an educated guess about when it is time to perform the graveyard boost, Stern said. As a result, this end-of-mission transfer usually occurs when satellites still have “some operational life left in them,” Stern said. If operators had a better readout on propellant levels, “companies could make a lot more money.”

CASIS got off to a slow start after winning a competition last year to manage non-NASA science at ISS. The group issued few public communications until March, when its executive director, Jeanne Becker, abruptly resigned.

CASIS has yet to select a fulltime replacement for Becker, Block said.

“We’ve got a list of hot names” of potential CASIS directors, Block said. CASIS aims to pick one of them to fill the post “later this summer,” he added.