Companies Eye Space Station for Retinal Implants, Organs-on-Chips & More

International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA is funding projects that will use the microgravity of the International Space Station (ISS) to improve sight-restoring retinal implants, produce high-value optical materials, and conduct research using organs-on-chips (OOCs).

These are three of seven proposals the space agency selected for funding last month under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program that utilize ISS or demonstrate technologies in low Earth orbit (LEO). Each phase 1 award is worth up to $125,000 over six months.

Other selected projects are focused on improving water recycling on crewed vehicles, facilitating on-orbit spacecraft refueling and storage, hosting payloads on satellite constellations, and automating the watering of plants on ISS.

NASA selected LambdaVision for an award to continue to refine the layer-by-layer (LBL) production of thin films used in the company’s retinal implants.

Protein-based retinal implants (Credit: LambdaVision)

“The current terrestrial LBL approach is influenced by gravity, in which sedimentation and gradients of solutions interfere with homogeneity and uniformity of the multilayered implants,” the company said in the proposal summary.

“We hypothesize that manufacturing in a microgravity environment will improve the quality of the films and, as a result, will enhance stability and performance for future pre-clinical and clinical trials. Additionally, we predict that these improvements will reduce the cost, time, and amount of material needed for each manufacturing cycle,” the company added.

The Connecticut-based company performed a pilot manufacturing trial aboard the space station during the SpaceX Dragon CRS-16 mission, which was launched in December 2018. The trial provided LambdaVision with proof of concept and allowed engineers to miniaturize the LBL manufacturing device.

“In this [SBIR] Phase I proposal, we will perform a series of terrestrial-based parameter setting studies to optimize the LBL manufacturing conditions prior to leveraging the ISS facilities for a subsequent Phase II flight,” the company said.

NASA selected Apsidal, LLC to develop its Laser Doppler Anemometry Assisted Hypercognitive Microgravity Materials Manufacturing Unit for producing commercial optical materials aboard the space station.

“This would allow the manufacturing of high valued optical materials in a way that is fault tolerant, automated, universal and easily adaptable to a space-based environment,” the Los Angeles-based company said in is proposal summary.

“At the heart of this unit is its hypercognitive deep-learning control system for manufacturing that seamlessly allows an earth-based method to translate to a zero-gravity environment — a considerably arduous and expensive task,” Apsidal added.

“This has important applications in broad spectral imaging, high-bandwidth communications, spectroscopy, high fidelity encryption and cryptography, remote sensing, medical diagnostics, laser technology and process control,” the company added. “It has a major market for aerospace and defense applications and commercial markets. This is important for education and research on the effects of gravity on complex materials.”

NASA selected Techshot to produce microfluidic chips (organs-on-chips or OOCs) for biological research aboard the space station.

“OOCs are microfluidic 3D cell culture devices that closely mimic the key physiological functions of body organs,” the Indiana company said in its proposal summary. “The chips are not designed to mimic an entire organ but simulate the physiology of a single functional unit of an organ system. They have resulted from scientific advances in cell biology, microfabrication and microfluidics which allow the emulation of the human micro environment in vitro.

“Techshot has designed and built the first multi-head, ISS resident bioprinter with culture capability. The methods and system we are proposing here could print micro-organs in this facility to address the emerging OOC market and exploit the unique research potentials in microgravity,” Techshot added.

NASA selected IRPI of Portland, Oregon for two SBIR Phase I awards to improve life aboard the space station. One award will fund the development of advanced superhydrophobic fluids processing to improve water recycling.

Capillary fluidic solutions “exploit surface tension, wetting, and system geometry to passively position fluids in desired locations for reliable collection, separation, and transport. Because such aqueous streams can be highly contaminated with particulates and gases, passive no-moving-parts solutions are attractive due to their simplicity and increased reliability,” the company said.

NASA also selected IRPI’s autonomous plant watering system for SBIR funding.

“Recent advances in low-g capillary fluidics research are re-invigorating the path forward, making possible the practicable design, fabrication, testing, and demonstration of advanced watering systems for spacecraft plant growth facilities, research platforms, and habitats,” the company said. “Such solutions exploit surface tension, wetting, and system geometry to passively control fluids for reliable separation, collection, and transport.”

Spacecraft On-Orbit Advanced Refueling and Storage (SOARS) system. (Credit: Embry Riddle Aeronautical University)

Zero-G Horizons Technologies (ZGHT) has partnered with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to develop the Spacecraft On-Orbit Advanced Refueling and Storage (SOARS) system with the help of NASA funding.

“The key innovation of SOARS enables the separation of liquid and gas in microgravity through our unique rotational settling technology and leads to transfer of only the desired liquid propellant with minimal pressure difference without expensive pumps and thereby providing a cost-effective solution,” the proposal summary stated.

“ZGHT said the technology has been tested in microgravity conditions aboard a parabolic aircraft and matured up to technology readiness level (TRL) 4.

“Through this NASA SBIR grant, suborbital flight test onboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo (four minutes microgravity) and orbital flight test onboard the International Space Station (ISS) will mature the technology to TRL 7,” the Florida-based company said.

FlexCool (Credit: ROCCOR)

One of the key challenges with CubeSats and small satellites is thermal control for on-board electronics. ROCCOR of Longmont, Colorado was selected for an award for development of FlexCool, an “extremely thin (< 1 mm), easily bent, high heat flux, heat pipe” designed to dissipate the heat loads.

“Non-NASA applications include military and commercial aviation, military electronics and consumer electronics,” the company said. “The most prevalent applications with future commercial partners include internet from space constellations and Earth imaging. Electronics cooling is a large commercial and defense market that could benefit from high conductivity materials developed under the program.”

NASA also selected Space Micro of San Diego for a project that would place hosted payloads on the communications satellite constellations.

“If a tactical communications payload can be hosted by these constellations, the constellation infrastructure can be leveraged as a backbone for tactical communications,” the company said. “These constellations therefore offer the opportunity to provide increased resilience of communications links by delivering diversity of communications coverage and/or dramatically increased tactical communications capacity which can be made available on demand.”

Summaries of the selected proposals follow.


Optimization of the Manufacturing Parameters for the Assembly of Protein-Based Retinal Implants in Microgravity
Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

LambdaVision, Inc.
Farmington, CT

Principal Investigator
Nicole Wagner

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL)
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

LambdaVision developed a protein-based retinal implant to restore vision to the millions of people who are blinded by retinal degenerative diseases, including retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.

Preclinical evaluation of the technology, including ex vivo extracellular recording experiments and in vivo surgical development, demonstrated that we are able to reproducibly stimulate degenerated retinal tissue and safely insert the prosthetic into the subretinal space of both rats and pigs.

These milestones provide a foundation for further work to test biocompatibility and efficacy of the technology; however, the outcome of future efforts are dependent on the quality and efficiency of our manufacturing methodology.

The implants are manufactured using a layer-by-layer (LBL) assembly technique, in which alternating layers of the light-activated protein, bacteriorhodopsin, and a polycation binder are sequentially deposited onto an ion-permeable film.

The current terrestrial LBL approach is influenced by gravity, in which sedimentation and gradients of solutions interfere with homogeneity and uniformity of the multilayered implants. We hypothesize that manufacturing in a microgravity environment will improve the quality of the films and, as a result, will enhance stability and performance for future preclinical and clinical trials.

Additionally, we predict that these improvements will reduce the cost, time, and amount of material needed for each manufacturing cycle. A pilot manufacturing trial was completed on the International Space Station (ISS) via the SpaceX CRS-16 mission, which led to the miniaturization of a LBL manufacturing device and the proof of concept of creating multilayered thin films using a Low-Earth Orbit platform.

In this Phase I proposal, we will perform a series of terrestrial-based parameter setting studies to optimize the LBL manufacturing conditions prior to leveraging the ISS facilities for a subsequent Phase II flight.

Potential NASA Applications

This Phase I SBIR establishes the capabilities required to support Low-Earth Orbit commercialization related to the manufacturing of protein-based retinal implants in microgravity. The implant targets patients with retinal degeneration, a leading cause of blindness for millions around the globe, including astronauts exposed to extended-duration spaceflight.

The work outlined will support a new sector in the Space economy, which utilizes the impact of microgravity on physical systems to improve current production methods for patient therapies.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

An enhanced layer-by-layer manufacturing process can improve the homogeneity, orientation, and stability of multilayered thin films for broad applications, including retinal implants, photovoltaic cells, chemical sensors, drug delivery systems, and optical processors. Efficient ordering of biomaterials is of interest to scientists with technologies across therapeutic and biomedical sectors.

Duration: 6 months


Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

Laser-Doppler-Anemometry Assisted
Hypercognitive Manufacturing in Microgravity

Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

Apsidal, LLC
Los Angeles, CA

Principal Investigator
Dr. Amrit De

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 1
End: 4

Technical Abstract

There is a need to enhance the commercial utilization of the International Space Station for space-based manufacturing of unique high commercial valued materials that can only be made in microgravity.

Apsidal will address the above-mentioned challenges by developing its Laser Doppler Anemometry Assisted Hypercognitive Microgravity Materials Manufacturing Unit. This would allow the manufacturing of high valued optical materials in a way that is fault tolerant, automated, universal and easily adaptable to a space-based environment.

At the heart of this unit is its hypercognitive deep-learning control system for manufacturing that seamlessly allows an earth-based method to translate to a zero-gravity environment — a considerably arduous and expensive task. In order to ensure that the deep learning control is well defined, an innovative in-situ Laser-Doppler-Anemometry based material-quality-check sensor is used as a continuous input to the deep learning-based control system for manufacturing unit. This adaptable approach also drastically minimizes human involvement and the number of space-based iterations.

Potential NASA Applications

The main NASA applications would be the utilization of the International Space Station for commercial manufacturing of high valued and high-demand materials. This will fuel low earth orbit flights for manufacturing and will further lead to the establishment of manufacturing units on the moon and can fuel additional space exploration. Additional NASA end-user applications include remote sensing, communications, precision cutting tools and space defense systems.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

This has important applications in broad spectral imaging, high-bandwidth communications, spectroscopy, high fidelity encryption and cryptography, remote sensing, medical diagnostics, laser technology and process control. It has a major market for aerospace and defense applications and commercial markets. This is important for education and research on the effects of gravity on complex materials.

Duration: 6 months


In-Space Manufacturing of Microfluidic Chips for Biological Research
Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

Techshot, Inc.
Greenville, IN

Principal Investigator
Eugene Boland

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

According to a recent Grand View Research report, the global 3D bioprinting market size was valued at USD 965.0 million in 2018 and is anticipated to grow at over 19.5% for the next 10 years. This includes all aspects of medical materials including metals, plastics, ceramics, biomaterials, cells, tissues and organ substitutes. Advances in bioprinting are gaining importance and the tissues generated will soon become available for transplantation.

In parallel, however, the use of human tissue analogs is becoming increasing valuable in drug discovery. The tissue chip and micro-organ fields are growing at compound annual growth rate exceeding 34%. These technologies and products are collectively known as organs-on-chips (OOCs).

OOCs are microfluidic 3D cell culture devices that closely mimic the key physiological functions of body organs. The chips are not designed to mimic an entire organ but simulate the physiology of a single functional unit of an organ system. They have resulted from scientific advances in cell biology, microfabrication and microfluidics which allow the emulation of the human micro environment in vitro.

This unique feature of OOCs is made possible by integrating biology with advanced engineering technologies such as bioprinting. Human OOCs are miniaturized versions of lungs, livers, kidneys, heart, brain, intestines and other vital human organs embedded in a chip.

The OOC and bioprinting fields are intrinsically linked and many groups, including Techshot researchers, are looking to leverage bioprinting OOCs to circumvent fundamental structural challenges faced in the race to bioprint large-scale organs for research and discovery.

To this end, Techshot has designed and built the first multi-head, ISS resident bioprinter with culture capability. The methods and system we are proposing here could print micro-organs in this facility to address the emerging OOC market and exploit the unique research potentials in microgravity.

Potential NASA Applications

Techshot will offer the Organ-on-a-Chip (OOC) manufacturing capability to microgravity researchers and NASA’s Exploration Medicine Capability (ExMC) element. Personalized medicine and basic research are possible with OOCs to improve astronauts’ health and predict the physiological changes that occur with long-term space exposure. This OOC in-space manufacturing capability could help enable human pioneering beyond low earth orbit.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Applications involve drug testing and individualized drug responses. The FDA is striving to reduce the dependency on animal and human clinical experimentation. Billions are spent on drugs that fail in efficacy trials. By understanding OOCs, humanized systems can evaluate drug responses to specific diseases or chips unique to individual patients can be made to evaluate treatment regimens.

Duration: 6 month


Advanced Superhydrophobic Fluids Processing for Life Support
Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

IRPI, LLC
Portland, OR

Principal Investigator
Ryan Jenson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Capillary fluidic solutions to the challenges of water recycling aboard spacecraft are gaining ground. Such solutions exploit surface tension, wetting, and system geometry to passively position fluids in desired locations for reliable collection, separation, and transport. Because such aqueous streams can be highly contaminated with particulates and gases, passive no-moving-parts solutions are attractive due to their simplicity and increased reliability.

In this research, we demonstrate the marked improvements in passive system performance that can be achieved with the judicious use of superhydrophobic substrates and surfaces, which have not been aptly exploited aboard spacecraft to date. We first highlight the many current life support systems that can benefit from such non-wetting surfaces. We then identify the variety of monolithic materials and coatings suitable for spacecraft deployment with holistic considerations for the complete life support system.

As our Phase I deliverable, we down-select, construct, and demonstrate a high-performance passive urine collection and transport device for advanced spacecraft life support that is largely contamination-free, reducing or eliminating the need for replacement spares and saving on costs, mass, volume, and crew time. Further, a low-cost fast-to-flight technology demonstration aboard ISS is proposed as part of our broader Phase II effort.

Potential NASA Applications

Sample applications include urine collection and distillation elements, bubble separations, plant watering systems, condensing heat exchangers, and others. Single-use disposable devices as well as permanent life support equipment can benefit in microgravity environments aboard ISS and Orion as well as Lunar and Martian systems.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Commercial aerospace providers will benefit from enhanced performance of certain space hardware similar to NASA. Terrestrial applications may also benefit via enhanced microscale fluids management, and at the macroscale, self-cleaning and anti-fouling properties.

Duration: 6 months


Autonomous Plant Watering System for Spacecraft
Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

IRPI, LLC
Portland, OR

Principal Investigator
Ryan Jenson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL)
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Autonomous plant watering aboard spacecraft poses persistent challenges for fluid systems designers. However, recent advances in low-g capillary fluidics research are re-invigorating the path forward, making possible the practicable design, fabrication, testing, and demonstration of advanced watering systems for spacecraft plant growth facilities, research platforms, and habitats.

Such solutions exploit surface tension, wetting, and system geometry to passively control fluids for reliable separation, collection, and transport. Because such aqueous streams for plant habitats can be highly contaminated with particulates, biofilms, and gases, passive no-moving-parts solutions are attractive due to their simplicity, resilience to fouling, and increased reliability.

In this Phase I research effort we propose to develop a scalable autonomous semi-passive omni-gravity hydroponic plant watering system for space applications. The system exploits recent advances in capillary fluidic phenomena demonstrated aboard the ISS to passively and autonomously deliver aerated nutrient-rich water at appropriate plant uptake rates during the various stages of plant growth and development—from germination to maturity.

The system is designed for all gravity levels; namely, terrestrial, Lunar, Martian, and microgravity, the latter with NASA’s Deep Space Gateway missions in mind. A low-cost fast-to-flight technology demonstration aboard ISS is proposed as part of our broader Phase II effort.

Potential NASA Applications

The system is designed for all gravity levels and may be utilized in current plant facilities aboard ISS or in future missions including Deep Space Gateway, Lunar, or Mars.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

We expect the resulting products to appeal to commercial space operators and certain terrestrial markets. Potential products include hydroponic channels, passive stable aerators, passive bubble phase separators, passive flow level controllers, and novel non-occluding conduits, fittings, and valves.

Duration: 6 months


Space Demonstration of FlexCool Thin Flat Heat Pipes
Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

ROCCOR, LLC
Longmont, CO

Principal Investigator
Mario Saldana

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL)
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

In an effort to address current technical gaps in thermal management systems for small spacecraft, Roccor proposes to raise the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of FlexCool, a promising extremely thin (< 1 mm), easily bent, high heat flux, heat pipe. The heat pipe proposed for this effort will undergo several environmental tests to qualify its use for flight and a microgravity test.

Roccor has been working closely with NASA’s TechEdSat group to identify a possible flight opportunity on the TechEdSat 10 mission, a 3U CubeSat launched from the International Space Station. The FlexCool Heat pipe will cool the radio transponder. Under this partnership, Roccor will carry out the design, build, leak tests, thermal performance tests, freeze/thaw tests, and thermal/pressure cycling tests. The prototype will then be delivered to the TechEdSat group to carry out the remainder of the environmental tests.

However, the TechEdSat platform does not provide a platform to characterize and understand critical heat pipe behaviors such as startup from a cold state when exiting eclipse or pulsing on a high power load. Perhaps most critically, the behavior of a heat pipe changes in a microgravity environment and full flight qualification would be achieved in Phase II, enabling FlexCool to become a new standard for fast, inexpensive integration on emerging power hungry commercial SmallSats and NASA CubeSat science platforms.

In addition to working with the TechEdSat group, SEAKR Engineering has agreed to be a subcontractor to derive requirements relevant to their commercial products. SEAKR is a leading supplier of innovative spacecraft electronics. By feeding requirements for some of their architectures SEAKR will gain an enabling technology and Roccor will advance the path to the commercialization of FlexCool technology in relevant space systems like the RCC-5 reconfigurable computer module.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary NASA target application for the proposed space-rated FlexCool™ flexible thermal strap technology is future NASA CubeSat and SmallSat spacecraft for which thermal control of on-board electronics is a major bottleneck in the system design. The proposed technology will enable efficient heat transfer by dissipating a wide range of heat loads in widely varying environments.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Non-NASA applications include military and commercial aviation, military electronics and consumer electronics. The most prevalent applications with future commercial partners include internet from space constellations and Earth imaging. Electronics cooling is a large commercial and defense market that could benefit from high conductivity materials developed under the program.

Duration: 6 months


Spacecraft On-orbit Advanced Refueling and Storage
Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

Zero-G Horizons Technologies, LLC
Ormond Baech, FL

Principal Investigator:
Mr. Benjamin Tincher

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Zero-G Horizons Technologies (ZGHT) in partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) is developing a Spacecraft On-Orbit Advanced Refueling and Storage (SOARS) system. SOARS directly supports Moon to Mars Campaign (NASA’s Space Policy Directive-1).

The key innovation of SOARS enables the separation of liquid and gas in microgravity through our unique rotational settling technology and leads to transfer of only the desired liquid propellant with minimal pressure difference without expensive pumps and thereby providing a cost-effective solution.

ZGHT the first and the only company who pioneered this unique SOARS technology to Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4 through the Facilitated Access to the Space Environment for Technology (FAST) program flight testing using NASA’s Reduced Gravity Aircraft (30 seconds microgravity).

Through this NASA SBIR grant, suborbital flight test onboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo (four minutes microgravity) and orbital flight test onboard the International Space Station (ISS) will mature the technology to TRL 7. Exposure to long-duration microgravity environment using ISS facility is a key factor in demonstrating this technology for various operational test scenarios using the Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) testbed onboard ISS.

The collaboration with Made In Space (MIS) will enable utilization of the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) to fabricate the experiment hardware in ISS. Ultimately ZGHT is committed to establish itself as a key player in the area of propellant storage and transfer in space.

Phase I of this SBIR will involve planning and preparation for suborbital Virgin Galactic vehicle and orbital ISS testing. Phase II will involve the fabrication and flight experimentation. Phase III involves the identification and collaboration with commercial partners and to utilize Archinaut program of MIS to directly fabricate and test the prototype in Low Earth Orbit.

Potential NASA Applications

SOARS will enable the commercialization of on-orbit propellant depots, which will greatly improve the capability of current and future NASA launch systems. SOARS can be an alternative option to expensive Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles through the refueling of Small to Medium Lift Launch Vehicles once on-orbit to extend their range and mission capabilities. SOARS will facilitate Moon to Mars Campaign Missions by providing a base for exploration and enhance the human missions in cislunar space. SOARS can effectively support NASA’s Restore-L mission.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

SOARS will be an on-orbit fuel station to meet the demands of commercial space exploration sector. SOARS can support the expanding range and endurance requirements of commercial space missions such as space tourism, transportation, research, mining, habitation, and national security missions. Terrestrial applications include medical effective capillary flows, IVs, and better centrifuge systems.

Duration: 6 months


Hosted Communications Payload to Leverage
Commercial LEO Constellations

Subtopic Title: Low Earth Orbit Platform Utilization and Microgravity Research

Space Micro, Inc.
San Diego, CA

Principal Investigator
Dr. Bert Vermeire

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL)
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

A number of satellite communications (SATCOM) constellations have recently been proposed. Because some are funded to initial deployment, it is likely that opportunities to host NASA payloads on these commercial constellations will soon appear. If a tactical communications payload can be hosted by these constellations, the constellation infrastructure can be leveraged as a backbone for tactical communications.

These constellations therefore offer the opportunity to provide increased resilience of communications links by delivering diversity of communications coverage and/or dramatically increased tactical communications capacity which can be made available on demand.

The SATCOM constellations of most interest are Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) because they have the lowest launch and operations costs, have best coverage (they contain many satellites), and best link budgets. However, such orbits add complexity to the hosted tactical communications payload design and operation, since the satellite will pass over a user terminal which may not have the ability to track the satellite with its antenna.

Potential NASA Applications

Our cross-cutting space product will enable current and potential NASA space missions. JUICE, WFIRST, NISAR, Lucy, Psyche, IXPE, Restore, Hermes, Whipple, TiME, Hera, Chopper, etc. which encompass both Discovery-class and SMEX missions. Future NIAC missions could benefit such as KST, PuFF, LEAVES, R-MXAS.

Space Micro will manufacture/market this product to NASA customers, after design verification in Phase II spacecraft primes will be more comfortable with the higher TRL.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The product evolving from this SBIR will accommodate a wide range of space customers including emerging commercial constellations from TeleSat, Inmarsat, HeliosWire, Saturn, Astranis, Audacy, WorldVu, SpaceX, Iceye, Blue Origin. There are also a number of DoD space mission applications for small satellites, with focus on SmallSats in LEO. International space programs ESA, ISRO, JAXA, CONAE.

Duration: 6 months