How the space experiment works


Proteins are ready for the International Space Station!

How the space experiment works

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



What preparation must be done.

For Japanese academics, applications are open twice a year (for foreign academics and proprietary researchers, different application schemes are available). JAXA carefully selects promising projects after discussions with experts from various fields.

The external committee is holding a meeting

The external committee is holding a meeting


Preparation (1)

Preparation is the name of the game.

We do not just send the protein samples into space. With our over ten-year experience, we have found that a successful experiment relies on sample characterization and preparation on the earth. If a sample has problems in purity and stability, for example, we improve them, and then need to find a solution with the right conditions, namely the right combination of reagents and their concentration, pH of the solution, and additives serving as stabilizing 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!

JAXA's laboratory

JAXA's laboratory

JAXA's laboratory (in Japanese)


Preparation (2)

Launch day is just ahead.

Currently our samples are transferred by either Russian spacecrafts, Soyuz and Progress, or American cargo, SpaceX Dragon. Russian spacecrafts are launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where we perform the final preparation. When we use the American spacecraft, the final preparation is done at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida or the Tsukuba Space Center.

In the final preparation, proteins and optimized crystallization solutions are loaded into JCB-SGT crystallization bags, specifically developed for JAXA space experiments. JCB-SGT is a tube-shaped bag made of polyethylene terephthalate, the same material as that of plastic bottles. One JCB-SGT is capable of holding up to 6 proteins. We place the JCB-SGTs in a special container, so as to prevent damage by the enormous vibration at launch. The simple design of the equipment helps for astronauts to handle it easily.



  • Sample loading

    Sample loading



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.

Launch of Soyuz rocket (JAXA/NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Launch of Soyuz rocket (JAXA/NASA/Bill Ingalls)


Space Experiment

Proteins are on the International Space Station

A crew swiftly initiates the crystallization after the sample arrival at the International Space Station (ISS). The containers are placed into the incubator to keep the temperature constant. The incubator can be remotely operated 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 the protein is essential. The ground controllers monitor and adjust the temperature throughout the experiment. They also resolve any problems with the incubator, leaving our proteins in their safe hands. The proteins are incubated and crystallized in space for one to two months, and then are returned to the earth on a Soyuz or Dragon spacecraft.

A little note

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

Astronauts holding containers (JAXA/NASA)

Astronauts holding containers (JAXA/NASA)

  • Astronaut initiating the experiment (JAXA/NASA)

    Astronaut initiating the experiment (JAXA/NASA)

  • The ground control room at the Tsukuba Space Center

    The ground control room at the Tsukuba Space Center


Structure Determination

Have we got crystals?

After returning to the earth, the samples are handed to JAXA, and then passed to scientists in Japan, who collect the diffraction data of crystals grown in space at synchrotron radiation 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 example, 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 to space in total, and related research continues throughout Japan.

More about determining protein structure

For the Public