Astronauts have been conducting experiments on the International Space Station for years, but the high cost of crew time has been a major bottleneck. Frontier Space Technologies, a startup founded by a team of researchers from Cranfield University in the UK, aims to address this issue with an innovative solution. Their autonomous lab, called SpaceLab, has the potential to revolutionize space science by enabling multiple experiments to be conducted in microgravity without the need for human labor.
Frontier Space Technologies is developing an autonomous lab, SpaceLab, to address the high cost of astronaut labor for space experiments. Their innovative design allows for multiple experiments to be conducted simultaneously in microgravity without human intervention. With plans for on-orbit demonstrations in 2024, Frontier aims to revolutionize space science and enable a wide range of scientific research in space.
From Student Projects to Commercial Traction
The idea behind SpaceLab originated from a PhD project led by Aqeel Shamsul, the co-founder and CEO of Frontier Space Technologies. The team realized the commercial potential of their technology after successfully flying a prototype lab on an atmospheric balloon as part of the REXUS/BEXUS program supported by the German Aerospace Center and the Swedish National Space Agency.
Impressed by the proof of concept, Frontier co-founder and CTO Mateusz Zalasiewicz said, “Maybe this could be a real product. We got to speaking from there and decided we can give this a go. We’ll try and incorporate and see if we can commercialize this tech.”
The Innovative Design of SpaceLab
SpaceLab is a small, 3U CubeSat that consists of two parts experiment payload and one part interfacing bus. At the core of the payload is the “Multi-Chamber Sample Disc,” which is essentially a compact disc that can hold multiple samples while keeping them isolated from each other. This allows SpaceLab to conduct multiple experiments simultaneously by independently manipulating each sample.
The disc rotates and aligns each sample chamber with various sensors depending on the experiment’s requirements. These sensors include fluorescence microscopes for biopharma applications, visible light spectrometry for chemical analysis, and environmental sensors to ensure accurate environmental conditions for experiments.
Towards On-Orbit Demonstrations and Beyond
Frontier is planning to launch its first on-orbit demonstrations in the fourth quarter of 2024. These demonstrations are being developed in collaboration with The Exploration Company and Sierra Space, and have received support from the UK Space Agency’s International Bilateral Fund.
Frontier aims to launch multiple variants of SpaceLab, with missions focused on protein crystallization and live cell cultures. Live cell culture missions are particularly significant as they will demonstrate SpaceLab’s capability to conduct experiments on live samples and keep them alive upon their return to Earth.
So far, Frontier has raised $270,000 in grants and secured a contract with their first commercial customer. As they work towards their first demo mission, the team is actively fundraising to support their ambitious vision of advancing research capabilities in space.