Aotearoa New Zealand embarks on ambitious new space research

Aotearoa New Zealand is joining forces with US space company Axiom to collaborate on ambitious new space research that could have far reaching benefits for humankind.

Axiom has already successfully completed its first private mission on the International Space Station (ISS) and is currently building the first commercial space station, set to launch in 2024.

With a new memorandum of understanding between Axiom and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Aotearoa New Zealand’s researchers are set to benefit from Axiom’s capabilities and learn from their experience carrying out research on the International Space Station.

Space is an environment that helps engineers and scientists study new technology that can be applied here on Earth to make our lives better. Space stations are located in low Earth orbit where the very low gravity creates unique conditions for innovative research which can't be carried out anywhere else. This can result in faster development of things like pharmaceuticals, vaccines and purer materials that can give us better results and save lives.

A key example of this is protein crystallisation, which can produce larger and higher-quality crystals in microgravity as compared to those produced on Earth. The data obtained from these crystals allows for a more complete understanding of the proteins and can lead to rapid drug and vaccine development on Earth.

One of the initial feasibility studies agreed to with Axiom is the development of new facilities to study protein crystallisation in microgravity, led by Dr Sarah Kessans at the University of Canterbury’s School of Product Design.

Headshot of Dr Sarah Kessans

“We’re working towards developing food and pharmaceutical production that will benefit both life on Earth, as well as future space exploration. This partnership will allow us to accelerate both the commercial opportunities and research outcomes for valuable biotechnology programmes in space.”

Dr Sarah Kessans(external link) — University of Canterbury's School of Product Design

The other feasibility study involves an Auckland team advancing Artificial Intelligence (AI) models for clinical decision support tools monitoring astronaut health and performance, led by Dr Brian Russell at the Auckland University of Technology in conjunction with the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.

Headshot of Brian Russell

“Managing human health and performance in this way sets the stage for future missions where astronauts can explore even greater possibilities in space”

Dr Brian Russell — Auckland University of Technology

Once developed, the AI tool and process could be used to support remote communities here on Earth that don’t have access to health specialists, such as Antarctica or remote Pacific Islands.

These initial feasibility studies are just two of the areas that New Zealand researchers will be exploring, with the benefit of Axiom’s capabilities and expertise. Other areas include in-space manufacturing and space-focused STEM education initiatives — opening up substantial future R & D opportunities that could lead to exciting new industry niches for Aotearoa New Zealand’s growing space sector.