Two hundred and twenty miles above the Earth, tiny baby squid, no more than three millimeters in length, held the key to learning more about the human immune system and the balance between health and disease.   

Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), researchers working with the University of Florida recreated an ecosystem unrestricted by the effects of gravity to study microbe interaction in living cells. By observing microbes within the squid in a near weightless environment, researchers secured a better understanding of the role microbes play in activating and regulating the immune system.   

The presence and absence of gravity bears greatly on numerous life and physical science research for public and private institutions across the Florida High Tech Corridor and beyond. Institutions located throughout the Corridor region are uniquely positioned to leverage their proximity to Florida’s Space Coast for research in perhaps the most unique lab environment available, aboard the ISS. 

Based at Kennedy Space Center, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) works with organizations and companies to get their projects “off the ground.” A not-for-profit, with funding from the U.S. government, CASIS is responsible for enabling ISS access and dollars for research and technical developments of benefit to the planet and humankind. 

The market for space research has grown significantly since CASIS was founded five years ago and appointed by Congress to manage the U.S. National Laboratory on the ISS. In fiscal year 2012, CASIS awarded four research projects for the ISS. In fiscal year 2015, CASIS awarded and supported nearly 50 research project requests. That’s a clear opportunity for The Corridor’s growing private space exploration industry. 

“Having more players and suppliers in the marketplace, as well as the efforts of SpaceX , Orbital ATK and other companies working to find a way to make breakthroughs and money, drives innovation,” said Dr. Roberts.   

According to Dr. Michael S. Roberts, CASIS deputy chief scientist, the challenges of space make it the perfect environment for advanced research involving biological systems. The microgravity environment of space accelerates disease onset, mimicking what happens here on Earth, but at a faster rate,” said  Roberts. This is useful for fundamental understanding of root cause of disease, which may help cure or prevent disease onset.  

At the University of Central Florida, Dr. Joshua Colwell leads research on the origin and evolution of the solar system and small bodies such as planetary rings, asteroids and comets. He is also assistant director of the Florida Space Institute (FSI), located in Central Florida Research Park. FSI champions space-based research and development, as well as the growth of Florida’s space economy. 

In addition to advances in life sciences, Colwell explained that companies also look to space as the next frontier for securing natural resources – driving another avenue for researchAsteroids are a potential source for mining raw materialsand may even serve as fueling stations for future spacecraftBut before we see a large spacecraft land on an asteroid, scientists such as Colwell must explore how the microgravity environment could be navigated, so that a craft and robotic mining technologies can stay tethered to the asteroid surface.   

In March 2016, Colwell completed an initial study of nanorocks, which he had aboard the ISS for a year and a half of observation and testing. The nanorock study looked at the behavior of loose materials in the low-gravity environment of the ISS, providing a sense for what the movement might be like on the surface of an asteroid. It also delivered valuable insight into how planetary rings evolve through low-speed collisions of small particles in space. The ISS was central to the study, as it provided a lab environment unlike any on Earth. 

Dr. Jamie Foster, an associate professor with the University of Florida, who has been forging a new path into microbe interaction and immune system research using baby squid, said her initial study aboard the ISS provided an important proof of concept for research that continues to this day on the ground. Using mini bioreactors in her Earth-based lab to try and simulate a microgravity environment, however, does have its limitations. Foster is considering future opportunities to send the tiny squid to space, once more. “Gravity masks things we can’t quite figure out here on Earth,” said Foster.   

Space aboard the ISS lab continues to be in high demand. As Roberts explained, CASIS carefully evaluates each research request for its value to the nation, people and the Earth. There must be a clear benefit, such as investigating a new drug that could improve lives. 

Open market competition among companies that build and launch rockets and spacecraft has already lowered the cost of flying materials to low Earth orbit and will eventually make space research a more affordable endeavor. When considering the future, Roberts believes that companies may build their own space stations to use as private research labs – creating more opportunities for new avenues of research to take flight.  

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