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Astrium Enables Protein Growth Onboard ISS


Friedrichshafen.- Another success for the space experts of Astrium. After having successfully launched the Goce Earth observation satellite last week, the engineers of Europe’s largest space company are now in a position to announce further success: In the Columbus space laboratory aboard the International Space Station ISS, the crew members of the Discovery space shuttle have successfully installed and operated the PCDF experiment facility. With the help of the PCDF instrument, the scientists will investigate the growth of proteins under zero gravity conditions.

* Astronauts start operation of the PCDF experiment facility built by Astrium
* Scientists hope to gain information for new medicine development

The PCDF facility was developed and built in the “Payload & Life Support Centre” of Astrium Friedrichshafen on behalf of the European Space Agency ESA. It shall investigate the nucleation and crystallisation of protein molecules from solutions. For this purpose, the PCDF accommodates special diagnostics instruments (microscope and interferometer). Astrium Aquitaine teams provided the design, production and integration of four sub-systems of PCDF mostly in the temperature-regulated chamber containing the crystallisation reactors and their temperature control device.

After the launch of the U.S. space shuttle Discovery from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the early morning of 16 March, the Astrium development team of the Protein Crystallisation Diagnostics Facility (PCDF) anxiously waited for the moment when the astronauts brought the facility into the European Columbus laboratory. On last Friday, 20 March, the PCDF was integrated into the European Drawer Rack (EDR) for scientific operation and is now successfully operating. “All sub-systems work as scheduled.”, happily states Project Manager Robert Bosch.

The possibility to transmit video images out of the PCDF to Earth ensures that the scientists are always informed about the current experiment progress. Via telecommands from the ground, the facility also offers the possibility of intervening into the experiment processes and influencing them in order to obtain maximum results.

The four experiments of the facility will be conducted by the end of June 2009 and subsequently returned to Earth aboard a space shuttle.

Zero gravity on the ISS helps to prevent the occurrence of negative sedimentation impacts known from ground experiments and supports undisturbed crystal formation. Precise knowledge of the nucleation process is crucial to grow sufficiently homogeneous and large crystals which may provide information on the protein molecule via the so-called x-ray diffraction. This, in turn, can play an important role, for example, in pharmacy in the development of new medicine.


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