When SpaceX launched its resupply mission to the International Space Station in early December, it included a unique device created by the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s engineers. With the development of the new device, scientific experiments conducted in space may never be the same.
Over the past two years, researchers from the Engineering and Innovative Technology Development group, or EITD, have designed and built three rapid-freeze devices, one of which was included in the Dec. 5 launch. The device will enable astronauts to quickly freeze biological samples down to negative-190 degrees.
“When you’re freezing biological samples as part of a scientific experiment, the most important thing is to freeze the sample as rapidly as possible,” said EITD Mechanical Engineer Brandon Smith, who also earned his master’s degree from the UAB School of Engineering. “In laboratories on Earth, they will dunk the sample in liquid nitrogen; but it wouldn’t be safe to use liquid nitrogen in space. So NASA needed something on the space station that could freeze samples comparable to liquid nitrogen on Earth.”
EITD took on the challenge as part of a $3.6 million contract with NASA. The completed devices will freeze from 20 degrees down to negative-60 degrees within 1 minute and down to negative-140 degrees within 5 minutes. With those freeze rates, samples frozen in space will be comparable to ones frozen in experiments on Earth.
In October, all EITD employees who worked on the Rapid Freeze project received awards from NASA. The awards were delivered to UAB by the NASA project manager in charge of the Rapid Freeze program, C.J. Kanelakos.
From Southside to space
The SpaceX mission is not the first time UAB hardware has been launched into space. In fact, it is not at all unusual. For more than a decade, the EITD has designed, built and maintained a line of coolers and freezers that are used onboard the ISS and in transit. While in service on the ISS, the devices are constantly monitored by engineers at the EITD’s UAB remote operations facility.
“We are one of the largest payload developers in the history of the Space Station,” Smith said. “Millions of dollars of science go in and out of our coolers. It’s fun to work on, but it’s also a big responsibility to make sure the science community is able to meet expectations using our hardware.”
Smith said no EITD personnel were on-site for the launch, but he and other team members who worked on the rapid-freeze project watched from UAB when their many months of work launched into orbit.
“It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “I grew up loving all things space, so to be able to work on something like this and see it go up into space is a really incredible opportunity.”