WASHINGTON — Like a lot of researchers who want to conduct experiments in space, David Dickman, a neurobiologist from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is frustrated by the expense and lack of opportunities.
It is a common complaint among university researchers who would love to have the opportunity to conduct multiple experiments over a period of a few short years, but cannot afford launches that usually cost far more than what they have to spend on their payloads.
“We have a three- to five-year envelope with which to do multiple experiments” and would like to launch “multiple times within that three-year period, ” Dickman said Nov. 2 while participating in a panel discussion in Arlington, Va., sponsored by the American Society of Gravitational and Space Biology.
He was not alone in that frustration.
To a person, the biologists in attendance expressed concern about the high costs and low frequency of opportunities to do orbital and suborbital microgravity experiments. But they also were buoyed by the prospect that this long-term problem might finally be changing for the better with the pending launch of NASA Ames Research Center’s GeneSat and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries‘ (MHI) Japan Life Sciences Experiment, two small satellites designed as self-contained bio labs.
The Ames and MHI small satellite projects were introduced that day as just the kind of small-budget solutions for biologists to send their experiments more cheaply, more quickly and more frequently into space.
Pete Klupar, chief of the Ames’ newly created Small Satellite Project Office and the chair of the panel that day, told the standing-room-only crowd that there is room to do smaller space missions with lower price tags in the single and double-digit million-dollar range.
John Hines, the astrobionics project director at NASA Ames, took GeneSat to the podium, a thermos-sized box with gold coils wrapped inside its underwhelming veneer, and said it “demonstrates the capability to do real biological science in a small platform.”
Scheduled to launch Dec. 11, on a Minotaur rocket, GeneSat is based on it s predecessor, GeneBox, which launched July 17. GeneSat is the final technical demonstration of an Ames plan to launch four such microsatellites over a five-year period beginning with PharmSat’s launch, which could occur as soon as October 2007.
PharmSat is the first of four planned Ames production microsatellites designed specifically for microbiology experiments.
Two-thirds of each Ames microsatellite’s volume will be dedicated to housing biological payloads. The satellites are imbedded with discrete wells with each one capable of housing an independent experiment. The prototype spacecraft will have 12 such wells while the production models will have 48, the necessary number of experiments to statistically confirm test results, Hines said.
GeneBox was a “dry run” where an inorganic substitute took the place of microscopic organisms, such as the E. coli that will be in GeneSat and yeast in PharmSat. The density of organic growth is detected through optical devices and a green fluorescence technique to sense gene and protein expression. The data are then relayed back to the lab through radio transmitters aboard the satellite.
The 5 kilogram to 50 kilogram microsatellites provide their biological payloads with a microgravity environment during their 20 days of operation in space. The satellites are designed to be secondary payloads.
Hines also hopes the Ames microsatellites will solve the problem that Dickman and others decried: low launch frequency. Dickman said he believes the current number of launches available to biologists is too low to complete the number of experiments they need within the necessary three to five year window that typically mirrors their grant cycle.
Hines said Ames plans to conduct launches every six to nine months instead of once every year or two.
Combined, GeneSat and GeneBox cost approximately $8 million, with about $1 million devoted specifically to prepare GeneBox before GeneSat was finished. The cost for PharmSat was an estimated $2 million.
But several of the biologists in the audience complained that these prices were still out of their budgets. Klupar, however, tried to reassure them, saying efforts are under way to lower current prices by tenfold with the planned development of an economy of scale through the involvement of some of the emerging commercial developers of small launchers and small satellites.
Some of the researchers, like Dickman, said they also would like access to systems equipped with return capsules that would give them the ability to recover their experiments and study the results back on Earth. GeneSat, and the like, however, are designed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry. Therefore, all biological contents and experiments are destroyed and impossible to recover.
Hines said, plans are being made to allow for recovery in the future.
The MHI project, however, currently provides a way to recover its satellite with the biological payload still alive. Project Engineer Toshimasa Ochiai introduced the MHI project, which uses a small 110 kilogram, disc-shaped piggyback satellite designed to hold three mice, and be launched as a secondary payload aboard an MHI-built H-2A rocket, Japan’s largest launch vehicle.
With 34 hours of onboard life support, the mice are placed in the payload a day before launch. On re-entry, the payload deploys a parachute to “return the mice to Earth safely,” Ochiai said. The Japan Life Sciences Experiment is then retrieved from the ocean.
The Japan Life Sciences Experiment is a prototype for what eventually will be a small satellite, set to launch in 2011, capable of carrying 12 mice into orbit for 30 days.
Like the Ames’ microsatellites, the MHI system contains sensors that scan and control for internal temperature, humidity, gas exchange and liquid filtration.
Though he did not specify a dollar amount, Ochiai said the project was designed to lower costs and increase opportunity frequency for medical and pharmaceutical scientists looking to do experiments in space, including Americans.