The University of Adelaide is sending special pills to the International Space Station (ISS) to determine if it will be possible to produce medicines in space that will allow long-term space missions.
The launch from Wallops Flight Facility NASA in Virginia is scheduled for Sunday 21 February. The pills will contain ibuprofen and vitamin C as active ingredients, as well as excipients that can also be found on the lunar surface. These include silica, magnesium silicate (talc) and calcium phosphate.
A space pharmacopoeia
The University of Adelaide professor and director of research for the Andy Thomas Center for Space Resources, Volker Hessel, said the project is taking the first step towards "autonomous pharmaceutical production on board".
The 60 pills will be packaged in blisters and placed outside the ISS for six months. The goal is to find out how exposure to microgravity and space radiation affects the stability of pharmaceutical pill formulations.
We have incorporated radiation protection directly into the design of the pills. By altering the interaction between the ingredients and the drug we will be able to examine how these variations affect their stability.Volker Hessel
The need to produce drugs directly on board is absolute: to compensate for the side effects of space missions, and to challenge their length.
A "space doping"
Space technology companies Alpha Space e Space Tango they teamed up with the University of Adelaide to send the pills into space. The ISS experiment platform will host the operation.
The difficulty of drugs in space
Currently, astronauts in orbit have a stash of medicines brought by commercial refueling missions.
However, for missions as long as a three-year trip to Mars, frequent refueling may not be possible. Most commercially available prepackaged pill medicines, with an average shelf life of two years, will likely expire uselessly during these trips.
While it is possible to extend the shelf life of medicines, future astronauts will also face problems such as storage capacity and variety of pills and medicines.
The ability to produce drugs in space and on demand could be the best solution to both challenges.