RESEARCH IN A VACUUM
NSTDA aiming high with plan for space experiments
The dream of conducting scientific experiments in outer space is closer to reality.
The National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), in association with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa), are working towards carrying out experimental projects on the International Space Station (ISS).
ISS is a permanent research laboratory orbiting 400 kilometres above the Earth. It's designed to conduct various experiments using space-specific features such as micro-gravity, high vacuum environments, space radiation, and infinite solar energy. Many developed countries around the world have set up research labs there to benefit from the unique space environment to conduct advanced research.
Japan is one such country that hopes to establish its experimental module, called Kibo, on ISS. The module will be in place by the end of this year. Kibo comprises five key components - an experimental logistic module in the pressurised section, a pressurised module, an experimental logistic module in the exposed section, a remote manipulator system, and an exposed facility.
"As some areas of research can benefit from a space environment, we think that our projects should be given a chance," said Sawat Tantiphanwadi, deputy director of the Technology Management Centre at NSTDA.
Sawat has chalked out plans with Jaxa, hoping to accelerate Thai scientific and technological progress. As per plan, NSTDA has proposed the initial two experimental projects to be conducted at Jaxa's Kibo lab. The first project involves the study of the growth of Streptomyces coelicolor bacteria in a microgravity environment.
Sawat said as this kind of bacteria is used to produce antibiotic medicines, the project would help scientists improve production of antibiotics for further medical development.
There are indications that micro-gravity has a positive effect on the behaviour of microbes, such as an increased growth rate, shortened lag phase and enhanced antibiotic production. Sawat said the project would allow Thai scientists to better understand the growth rate and antibiotic production of this bacteria.
Importantly, they could do an in-depth study on gene expression profiles and characterise gene functions so the knowledge obtained from the altered antibiotic production in micro-gravity could improve antibiotic production back on Earth.
"If we can get new information from this experiment it could improve our techniques when we grow this kind of bacteria. The greater the antibiotic yield, the cheaper medicine becomes for the people," he said.
He said the second project was a study of in-vitro plants in space.
This project is to scrutinise the growth of tissue culture plants grown in a bottle in space, compared to those grown on Earth.
"As the plants will be grown in a space environment, we can see the relationship between non-gravity forces and the morphology of the in-vitro flowering as an alternative way to produce food sources in space," Sawat said.
The agency will propose the two projects to Jaxa for approval by the end of this month, after which the two parties will discuss details such as the cost of using Kibo's space lab facilities.
Japanese astronauts, on standby on Kibo, will help the agency to conduct the experiments in space, with the results being sent continuously to Thai researchers.
Sawat said if all goes as planned the agency may have to spend another three to four years developing experimental kits to be used in a space environment. It hopes that the Thai experiments will be conducted by 2010.