The Federal Institute of Technology's space biology unit in Zurich is celebrating its success in gaining a prestigious new contract. The European Space Agency has chosen the group as a support centre for the International Space Station.
The Paris-based Agency is decentralising its activities on the space station, expected to be operational by the year 2004, to several sites across its 14 member countries.
The Federal Institute's space biology group will provide back-up in the fields of space biology and biotechnology. That means arranging projects and experiments on the station, providing information and promotion and training crews.
One of the first projects to be undertaken will be an experiment to investigate the possibility of producing artificial organs in the absence of gravity.
"We are speculating that with zero gravity we will be able to carry out single-cell assembly to an organ in a better way," says the director of the unit, Doctor Augusto Cogoli, "We will work with Sulzer Medica on the production of artificial cartilages."
ESA and the Institute have signed a preliminary agreement for two years but the contract is expected to run for at least a decade.
The space biology group in Zurich is regarded as being a world leader in its field and is already involved in a wide range of experiments across Europe.
"We are preparing three experiments in space for next year, says Cogoli. "Two will be in the space shuttle. One dedicated to white blood cells and the other to yeast cells. And we also have a mission in the fall on a rocket."
The international space station is still under construction and won't be operational for several years. It will be a huge structure with four modules orbiting a central node with a permanent crew of seven. The United States, Russia, Europe and Japan will each be responsible for one of the modules.
"The space station's construction was decided at a political level," says Cogoli. "It is an enormous endeavour of humankind and it's a global enterprise. But it will be a great laboratory offering ideal conditions for work."
by Michael Hollingdale