An optical spin on 'rocket science'

It's not the first microscope to be shot into space; in 2011, NASA announced achievement of its long-term goal of operating a light microscope in the International Space Station. But the version of the digital, motorized Andromeda spinning-disk iMIC light microscopy platform that FEI Company designed for Project TEXUS (Technologische Experimente unter Schwerelosigkeit) may well be the first space-based microscope to accomplish such high-speed, high-resolution, 3D imaging of live cells in microgravity—and thus to extract such a volume of high-quality output from each specimen. For the space project, FEI adapted iMIC to fit into a 44-cm-diameter rocket, adding plenty of "special packing."

Like the NASA microscope, the iMIC will allow remote-controlled, real-time study of the effects of the space environment on cells—without subjecting the specimens to the effects of re-entry. It will perform three independent cell biology imaging procedures within six minutes of microgravity: Imaging neuroblastoma cells, thyroid carcinoma cells, and primary macrophages. The confocal microscope suppresses out-of-focus blur, providing an increase in contrast for individual images and allowing z-stack acquisition for 3D image generation.

The rocket will launch at the end of 2014; until then, scientists will conduct tests of equipment in parabolic flights. Project TEXUS is led by Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) and conducted by Astrium GmbH (Bremen, Germany), which are 100% owned by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).

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