January 27, 2009
Scientific Experiments In Microgravity
Sergi Vaquer, Doctor of Medicine from the UAB, and Arnau Rabadán, an industrial engineering student from the UPC, together with three teams from Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom, will participate in the ESA "Fly your Thesis!" program, an opportunity for PhD and master's degree students from across Europe to design, build, and carry out a scientific experiment in microgravity. In the final phase of the competition there were 16 research teams from different European universities who presented their projects at the ESA European Astronaut Centre, in Cologne (Germany), in December.
Next autumn the young researchers from the UAB and the UPC will participate in a campaign of three parabolic flights aboard the Airbus A300 ZERO-G that some astronauts use as part of their training. During the flights the aircraft accelerates as it gains altitude, then the engines are reduced to a minimum for 20 seconds while the plane traces a parabola in freefall. For these 20 seconds, conditions close to zero gravity are attained within the cabin. These maneuvers are repeated up to 30 times during a flight, so that after completing the three flights in the campaign, the researchers will have had the opportunity to experiment with microgravity over a considerable amount of time.
The experiment is being coordinated by Sergi Vaquer and is called the ABCtr MicroG project. It will study the behavior of ABC transporters, biological agents that are responsible for removing drugs and other toxins from human cells, under microgravity conditions. For this purpose, the UPC and UAB researchers have developed a special protocol to enable the activity of these molecules to be measured very accurately during the 20 seconds of microgravity in each of the 30 parabolas on a parabolic flight. Arnau Rabadán is in charge of the technical part of the experiment that involves designing a mechanism to mix the biomedical fluid and the ABC transporters inside a syringe, activating the chemical reaction. All of this must be done at 37ÃºC, that is, human body temperature. After 20 seconds the system will introduce a liquid into the syringe to freeze the mixture so that it will not be affected by gravity and the experiment will be repeated in the next parabola.
The mechanism will be regulated by a control system, since the conditions for the experiment and the quantity of liquids to be injected must be precisely set. The control system includes active elements, such as the motor to drive the syringes, and also supervisory elements, such as the censors to regulate the temperature of the syringe where the mixing is done.
The engineering, production and flight preparation activities will be supervised by Felip Fenollosa, a lecturer at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the UPC and co-director of the CIM Foundation. The CIM Foundation is a technological reference center of the UPC in the field of production technologies, and the design and building of the mechanism will now begin there. This will be based on a prototype of the equipment that was developed in 2008 at the CIM Foundation by Rosa PÃ mies, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at the UPC.
Improving medical treatments
The results will be useful in improving medical treatments for astronauts but they will also assist with a better understanding of the biological agents involved in the assimilation of drugs in general and the action of the transporters in illnesses such as cancer and AIDS.
Sergi Vaquer has worked as a crew physician at the Crew Medical Support Office of the ESA European Astronaut Centre, Cologne, and is currently a resident physician at the Hospital Parc TaulÃ in Sabadell (associated with the UAB) and a researcher at the Municipal Medical Research Institute (IMIM) of the Hospital del Mar. Arnau Rabadán is studying the Diploma in Mechanical Engineering at the College of Industrial Engineering of Barcelona (EUETIB) of the UPC, and the scientific equipment for this experiment will be the subject of his final thesis. He is currently on a research scholarship from the CIM Foundation.
Other projects selected
The other projects selected by the ESA are Complex, presented by a team of four students from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim (Norway), which will study the flow birefringence of a solution of clay particles in salty water, enabling them to better understand the self-organization of these small particles; the Dust Side of the Force presented by four students from the Institute of Planetology at the University of Mnster (Germany), which aims to study greenhouse and thermophoretic effects, which can lift particles off the ground in low gravity conditions and are thought to be important in the formation of planets and the generation of dust storms on Mars; and AstEx, presented by two students from the Open University (United Kingdom) and from the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis (France), which will investigate the behavior of a granular material under shear stress, with the possibility of using the results in the design of future missions to collect samples from asteroids.
Image 1: Since 1997, the 'Zero-G' Airbus A300 - the world's largest for parabolic flights - has been used by ESA, CNES, DLR and industrial customers to provide repeated microgravity periods of up to 20 seconds for research purposes. It is managed by Novespace, a subsidiary of CNES. ESA runs typically two parabolic campaigns annually. Scientists are regularly invited to submit experiment proposals for review and selection by peers.
Image 2 & 3: Prototype of the mechanism to enable the biomedical study to be carried out in microgravity conditions.
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