One of last years most fascinating tv programmes was the Horizon special on the ESA astronaut Tim Peake. Even though chemistry is my thing space continues to fascinate and inspire me. Whether it’s the Mars rover or the disappearance of the ESA Beagle I always try and mention newsworthy space stories in a lesson. There is an excellent YouTube clip from NASA about the scientific machinery on board Curiosity, including a mass spectrometer, and I find it an excellent introduction to Mass spectroscopy at AS level. Recently I blogged about growing crystals and believe it or not this is one of the tasks of an astronaut during their time on the International Space Station.
Growing crystals in microgravity has long been a focus of space science. I can remember the Saturday night clearly in 2003 when news broke that the space shuttle Columbia had exploded on its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. At the time I was completing my teacher training and also working part time as an editorial assistant for the American Chemical Society journal ‘Crystal Growth and Design’ (working for a peer reviewed journal is totally a post all on its own). So as the news filtered through and I began to understand what Columbia’s scientific mission had been about, the enormity of the tragedy resonated with me. The Columbia Space shuttle was on a mission to complete lots of science in microgravity. This included growing crystals, combustion studies and the development of stronger, more resilient metals and alloys. The Columbia space shuttle was essentially a science lab in space and the seven brave astronauts were trail blazers for the scientific community.
So why grow crystals in space? Space grown crystals are of greater purity than those grown on Earth and have more highly ordered structures which significantly improves their X-ray analysis. There has been a focus on growing protein crystals in space. Protein structural information plays a key role in understanding biological interactions. Scientists discover new drugs now by understanding the orientation and connectivity of the atoms within a molecule and how this drives its interaction with atoms in another molecule (for example an enzyme that might be able to be ‘switched off’). This allows for the development of new pharmaceutical treatments for both chronic and acute illnesses such as lymphoma , psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS and influenza to name but a few. The International Space Station provides an opportunity to have a complete crystallographic capability which was previously not possible with the space shuttles. The role of the astronaut is changing – the Space agencies need astronauts who understand the science. There are amazing opportunities for our next generation of scientists to be groundbreaking – not on Earth but in Space – helping to cure the illnesses that blight us humans.
p.s. Here is a good activity for growing crystals from NASA