Orbiting more than 300 miles above Earth, a tiny satellite with a laboratory shrunk to the size of a tissue box is helping scientists carry out experiments that take gravity out of the equation.
This latest piece of technology was launched last month by SpacePharma. The Swiss-Israeli company last week announced that its first experiments have been completed successfully.
In space, with hardly any interference from gravity, cells and molecules behave differently, helping researchers make discoveries in such fields as medicine and agriculture.
Nestlé turned to what scientists refer to as microgravity in 2012 to perfect the foam in its chocolate mousse and coffee, while drugmakers including Eli Lilly have used it to improve drug designs.
Usually, such experiments are sent up to the International Space Station and carried out with the help of astronauts, or they are conducted on parabolic airplane flights that enjoy short bursts of weightlessness.
SpacePharma says its miniature lab is a way for researchers to work in microgravity for extended periods.
“Everything can be done remotely while the system is in outer space,” said company founder Yossi Yamin. “We upload the link with the command files to the lab, and the experiment takes place.”
Clients receive data and images directly from the experiments, which are carried out on custom-built glass chips and can be run multiple times to test different reactions.
The satellite now in space holds four experiments, the first to be done for a German research institute.
A second launch, also with four experiments, is scheduled for August and includes research for a top-tier pharmaceutical company, Yamin said. By next year, he hopes to begin sending up satellites that each hold about 160 experiments.