Durable equipment saving space and weight
As there is no room for back-up gear, the most important factors when selecting laboratory equipment are maximum durability and reliability, low weight and low susceptibility to malfunctions or faulty calibration. This is why in orbit, i.e., particularly reliable pipettes
are used, made from extremely stable highperformance plastics such as Fortron® and PEEK. Due to their extreme stability, durability and light weight, these materials are widely used in space vessels – and they guarantee long durability and perfect ergonomics on Earth as well. For instance, the intuitive usability prevents erroneous handling and color coding facilitates the proper operation of the systems. When automation is key and when it is not
In space travel, there is a conflict of objectives to be resolved in the topic of laboratory automation and robotics
: on the one hand it makes sense to relieve astronauts of as many routines as possible and to automate repetitive tasks that have to be performed with great precision; on the other hand, the astronauts must be able to repair any device on their own using just their knowledge, creativity and – even unconventional – means available on board. The restrictions on weight and volume prohibit carrying a back-up, as each gram must be pushed against gravity at 9 x g to reach 28,000 km/h. In addition, automatic dispensers have a number of major limitations that disqualify them for being used aboard the ISS: they are too heavy, too large and, above all, they do not usually allow liquids to be dispensed against the wall of the vial, as this would require either the plate or the dosing unit to be tilted. Furthermore, there are no high throughput requirements on the ISS.Thus, astronauts usually have to operate without pipetting robots, i.e., the profound training
and extreme accuracy of all team members are of immense importance. In any case, they must use an identical pipetting technique and pipetting habits in order to prevent errors and achieve consistent, reproducible results. Switching between forward and reverse
pipetting or different habits when wiping off the pipette tip could lead to serious measuring errors. On earth, automated liquid handling guarantees the quality of results in high throughput experimenting . But: if automation is out of the question in individual cases, all employees involved must use the same pipetting techniques and standardize their pipetting habits.
A closer look at the special challenges and ways of solving issues on board a scientific laboratory in orbit can always provide us with some valuable ideas on how to optimize laboratories on Earth. As it comes to limitations of space, time and weight, we can use a lot of ideas to improve the staff’s surroundings and make workflows more efficient.