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International Space Station to carry Canadian science projects

Astronaut Chris Hadfield will oversee a range of university research experiments during his three months at the helm of space station Expedition 35.


This December, a mobile research lab the size of five NHL hockey rinks will fly over most of Canada’s universities, travelling almost 30 times faster and 45 times higher than an average commercial jet. Before the winter term is out, the crew of the International Space Station will have begun carrying out extensive Canadian aerospace science, thanks in no small part to Canadian university researchers back on Earth.

What’s more, this “Made In Canada” science will be taking place under the watchful eye of a familiar face – astronaut Chris Hadfield, who for three months will be commander of space station Expedition 35 and its crew. This marks the first space mission led by a Canadian and only the second time that such a large-scale mission has been led by someone who isn’t from Russia or the United States.

Mr. Hadfield has said that he’s been rehearsing for the role since he was a teenaged air cadet in Ontario in the mid-1970s. He was a member of the second shuttle mission to the Mir space station in 1995, and six years later he was the first Canadian to walk in space while helping to install Canadarm2 on the International Space Station.

The Canadian projects joining him in orbit include a palm-sized infectious-disease clinic, a zero-gravity study into manufacturing techniques, and studies into why we faint. All of these have university connections. Canadian experiments on blood vessels and on radiation will also be on the space-craft. Because of Mr. Hadfield’s high-profile role, the mission might be the Canadian Space Agency’s best chance to demonstrate to Canadians the value of research endeavours on the final frontier.

“In order to work in space, things have to be low in mass and volume as well as extremely reliable,” explained Luchino Cohen, a scientist with the Canadian Space Agency. “You don’t have dedicated technicians to fix something out there if it stops working. As a result, space has been a real driver of innovation.”

Dr. Cohen researches medical diagnostic technologies for space missions, working with scientists at Université Laval and Quebec’s National Optics Institute. He’s the principal investigator in research on a toaster-sized clinical diagnostic device called Microflow, which one day may be able to stand in for a medical clinic on long-duration space missions.

The device is a miniature version of a flow cytometer that identifies particular cells or molecules by running them through a high-pressure liquid stream in front of a laser. By doing this, it can quickly analyze a variety of ailments from infections and stress to blood cells and cancer markers. If it’s successful in the space-station trials this winter, the device could lead to samples from sick astronauts being tested right on the space station, doing away with the need to send those samples back to Earth for analysis. For domestic use, Microflow could one day be used to analyze biological samples for infectious disease or food quality in remote communities, where testing is prohibitively expensive.

Another experiment on Mr. Hadfield’s mission is something called BCAT-C1. It was designed by a team of physicists from Simon Fraser University, led by principal investigator Barbara Frisken. The team has devised a way for ordinary digital cameras to study how particles settle in the microgravity environment that exists in space. This study may offer insights into a variety of processes, from silicon production to fruit-juice filtering.

BCAT-C1 will undertake a series of experiments that look at colloids (particles of a substance evenly dispersed in, but not dissolved into, another substance). These experiments may ex-plain the behavior of colloid particles as they shift location and density in solid, liquid and gas form, something that would be distorted on Earth by sedimentation. By controlling and fine-tuning colloids, the physicists hope their work will lead to down-to-earth innovations such as paint that doesn’t need to be mixed or food products like mayonnaise with a longer shelf-life.
Mr. Hadfield and his crew plan to spend a few days working in the European Columbus module to assist a team of researchers back on Earth from the University of Waterloo. Led by kinesiologist Richard Hughson, the team studies why some people are more predisposed than others to faint, and possibly suffer crippling falls.

The experiment, called BP-Reg,will test the space station’s crew members to understand how their bodies handle the change in blood pressure and blood location before, during and after their mission. The findings could lead to a recommendation that astronauts heading out on lengthy space missions spend more time beforehand in a centrifuge, to build up immunity to the dizzying effects of adjusting to different amounts of gravity. The experiment also might have implications for people prone to fainting on Earth.

Recently, the Canadian Space Agency an-noun-ced that it will spend $2.25 million for capacity-building initiatives to foster more large-scale space research investigations from universities. The funding could help put newer projects into orbit.

One such technology is under development at Université Laval. Its aims are similar to those of the Microflow on-site medical clinic but this one is small enough to squeeze into a package the size of a DVD.

Michel Bergeron, director and founder of the Centre de recherche en infectiologie at Université Laval, leads the research on this device, which is called Lab on a CD. The intention is to analyze body samples such as blood through chambers in a small spinning disc. “Instead of reading music,” said Dr. Bergeron, “this centripetal device would read DNA.”

The future of Canadian university space science will benefit from researchers focusing on just a few common areas, argued Mike Dixon, director of the University of Guelph’s controlled environment systems research facility. He offered as an example that over the next few years Canada could become a world leader in growing plants for space applications.

“Canada could grow the first plant on the Moon,” said Dr. Dixon, whose research team had several experiments, including one using tomato seeds, on board the 2009 space station mission with Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk. “To work on the research that will help us attain such goals,” said Dr. Dixon, “will be just amazing.”

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