Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 August, 2021 at 10:40 am by Andre Camilleri
Professor Joseph Borg, Associate Professor of Applied Biomedical Science at the University of Malta
On 28 August, Malta is going to outer space. It’s a momentous moment, not only for the team at the University of Malta who have set up the experiment that will be heading to the International Space Station (ISS), but for Malta as a nation
The mission, named Project Maleth, involves sending a “biocube” containing human skin samples to the ISS, where it will be monitored for 50 to 60 days before returning to Earth splashing in the Atlantic Ocean. This bioscientific experiment, set up by the University of Malta, will gather data on samples from diabetic patients both on Earth and in microgravity.
There are two significant branches to this mission, the first being the scientific investigation itself (the SpaceOMIX investigation) that has the potential to affect the lives of hundreds of people affected by Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Malta has the third highest diabetes case rate in Europe, with 12.2% of the population suffering from the disease. Approximately 400 amputations are performed in Malta each year and the mortality rate of diabetic amputees within five years of surgery is at 70%.
We have obtained skin samples from diabetic wound ulcers containing various bacteria (collectively known as a microbiome) which will be exposed to spaceflight conditions and microgravity within the ISS. These samples will remain in orbit inside a specially designed biocube based on the Ice Cubes platform by Space Applications Services, Belgium. Any changes will be compared to the microbiomes being monitored back on Earth in our labs.
We don’t know yet what effects microgravity and solar radiation will have on both the human skin cells and the microbiome, but findings from other research groups have taught us that space instigates a host of different changes to the cell and molecular machinery. We expect the microbiome to either adapt and modify or die. Whether bacteria adapt and are able to thrive in space or die, we’ll learn a great deal from their genetic composition when the biocube returns to Earth.
The second branch of the mission is about bringing Malta together to celebrate and be a unique part of Malta’s maiden voyage to outer space. The biocube has now been assembled, packed and sent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, where it is being prepared for launch on 28 August (9.30am CET) on a SpaceX rocket using Cargo Dragon C208 (a capsule that houses all the resupply items for astronauts on board the ISS).
But the bioscientific experiment isn’t the only thing that’s travelling to the ISS. Digitally embedded within the biocube’s hard disk are around 1,000 contributions from children and organisations throughout Malta, including songs, poetry, artwork and messages, which will all be carried up to space. The biocube will be handled by a number of astronauts on its arrival, including French Aerospace engineer Thomas Pesquet, who will be writing about this historic event for Malta.
Involvement from people and organisations all around Malta has been integral to this project. Project Maleth is supported by the Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) of the University of Malta, which supports and sustains research at the university by raising funds from various sectors of society. This historic mission is shared by all of the project’s supporters and we firmly believe that the sky’s no limit for everyone involved, not just those of us working in the labs.
There’s still an opportunity to get involved in Malta’s first space mission, too. Zaar, Malta’s only crowdfunding platform has helped several projects reach fruition over the years. Now, by supporting this mission through Zaar, anyone can be a part of this moment in history and have their name forever associated with Project Maleth.
Contributors through the Zaar campaign will not only support Project Maleth but their donations will also help fund-raise Malta’s future space missions while unlocking some exciting rewards, including exclusive merchandise, a tour of the science laboratory and the chance to visit the biocube in person upon its return. The campaign will continue to run until the biocube has safely landed back on Earth in October.
A dedicated website has been set up to stream many of the live events as they occur and provide updates on the mission at www.spaceomix.com. You can also support Project Maleth on Zaar’s crowdfunding page at zaar.com.mt/projects/maleth.
This is a significant step for Maltese science and Malta in general and one that we’re confident won’t be the last.
Professor Joseph Borg, Associate Professor of Applied Biomedical Science at the University of Malta, is spearheading Project Maleth. Project Maleth is managed by SpaceOMIX, funded by the Ministry for Foreign and European Affairs of Malta, biotech company Evolve Ltd and Arkafort and supported by the Malta Council for Science and Technology and Esplora.