Proteins on a space odyssey. Hit the road to a gravity-free world!

How the space experiment works

Proteins are ready for the International Space Station!

Take a look how a space experiment works.
What preparation do you need to conduct a protein crystallization experiment in space?

STEP.1 Selection

What preparation must be done.

Applications are open twice a year for members of universities, research institutes, and industries in Japan. JAXA carefully selects promising projects after serious discussions with experts from various fields.

  • The external committee is holding a meetingThe external committee is holding a meeting

STEP.2 Preparation ?(1) Examination of crystallization conditions

Preparation is the name of the game.

All you need for making a "good" crystal in space is to optimize your crystallization conditions on earth. Every protein is different. And just imagine that more than 100,000 different proteins are working in your own body. To grow good crystals, you need to find a solution with the right conditions, namely the right choice and concentration of reagents, pH of the solution, and additives serving as glue between molecules. Sounds too much? Don't worry, JAXA will help you.

A little note

Thousands of reagents are available. Concentrations and pH values must also be considered. The number of combinations gets rocketing high. It's tough!

  • Crystallization set upCrystallization set up
  • Many different conditions are tested to find the best onesMany different conditions are tested to find the best ones

STEP.3 Preparation ?(2) Final onsite preparation

Launch day is just ahead.

Final preparation is made at Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Proteins with optimized crystallization conditions are loaded into JCB-SGTs%crystallization vessels specifically developed for JAXA space experiments. The JCB-SGT is a tube-like bag capable of holding as many as 72 proteins and made of polyethylene terephthalate, the same material as that of plastic bottles. We place the JCB-SGTs in a box called the Cell Unit, so as to withstand the enormous vibration that occurs at launch and to prevent leakage. Its simple design allows astronauts to handle it easily.

A little note

As a matter of fact, it is not easy to work in a gravity-free environment. Learning from previous space experiments, our equipment is very well designed.

  • Cell UnitCell Unit
  • Assembling a Cell UnitAssembling a Cell Unit

STEP.4 Launch

Proteins are loaded on the Soyuz Spacecraft and ready for the International Space Station!

Having read the instructions and after many training sessions, astronauts at the International Space Station look forward to the arrival of the proteins.
All of us have one thing in mind, "Have a safe trip!"
Quickly posing and "say cheese" with the staff coming all the way here, we rush back to Tsukuba.

Photos of Baikonur Cosmodrome and the International Space Station


A little note

At present, 15 countries are involved in the International Space Station Program. We collaborate with Russia to launch our protein samples into space.

  • Kibo Japanese Experimental Module"Kibo" Japanese Experimental Module
  • Team photoTeam photo

STEP.5 Space Experiments

Proteins are on the ISS.

The Japanese Experimental Module ("Kibo") of the International Space Station is equipped with the protein crystal growth facility, in which the protein samples are crystallized. The experiment begins when a crew member sets the cell units into the protein crystal growth facility. The experiment can be conducted remotely from the control room at the Tsukuba Space Center in Japan.

Temperature is the most critical factor for a successful experiment. Maintaining the optimum temperature of each protein is essential. The controllers monitor and adjust the Cell Unit temperatures throughout the experiment. They also resolve any problems with the units, leaving our proteins in their safe hands. The proteins are incubated and crystallized in space for two months, and then are returned to the earth aboard a Soyuz rocket.

A little note

Ground controllers operate the experimental devices and support the crew onboard the ISS. They are so COOL.

  • Astronauts holding a Cell UnitAstronauts holding a Cell Unit
  • The protein crystal growth facilityThe protein crystal growth facility
  • The ground control room at the Tsukuba Space CenterThe ground control room at the Tsukuba Space Center

STEP.6 Structure Determination

Have we got crystals?

Our samples returned to Baikonur Cosmodrome are handed to JAXA via the Russian Federal Space Agency, and then passed to scientists in Japan, who correct the diffraction data of crystals grown in space at synchrotron facilities such as Photon Factory and SPring-8. They process and analyze the data to determine protein structures.
A resulting structure could lead their research to a further stage. For instance, your space grown crystals of a disease-causing protein could be used to determine the protein's structure, and then you could design a new drug based on it.
More than 1,000 proteins have travelled into space in total, and related research continues throughout Japan.

More about determining protein structure

A little note

You may be a space scientist in the future.
Let's go to space together!

  • Protein crystals grown in spaceProtein crystals grown in space
  • A protein structureA protein structure

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