Nottingham students’ astropharmaceutical project set to be sent into space

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

A team of students have beaten competition from across Europe, becoming the first UK group to be selected for the “Orbit Your Thesis” competition to send their self-developed experiment to the International Space Station (ISS).

Team VITA (Visualising In-Space TXTL Astropharmaceuticals), a multidisciplinary team made up of students studying engineering, pharmacy, IT and more at the University of Nottingham, has undergone a rigorous selection process to become part of The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Orbit Your Thesis! programme.

As humanity continues to venture further away from planet Earth, the need for on-demand pharmaceuticals will increase, in the event of medical emergencies or illness during spaceflight. As spacecrafts are unable to turn around on the spot or hold supplies for all possible scenarios, Team VITA proposed a solution that tests the viability and reliability of protein therapeutics made in space.

Being part of the VITA mission is a dream come true for me. This is an incredible opportunity to work with a fantastic group of people and build a fascinating space mission that’s laying the foundations for what could be a massive part of how we explore space in the future – and even live on other worlds.
Daniel Robson, part of Team VITA who is currently studying for a PhD in Astropharmacy: Space Biology and Space Engineering

Daniel continued: “While the basics of the technology we’re using are what you learn in school, such as excitation and de-excitation of electrons, being able to say ‘we’ve built this, and it works in reality’ is an unbelievable feeling. We already know that cell-based and cell-free technology is doing great things here on Earth but imagine what it could do with the support a hi-tech sector, such as the space industry.”


When VITA, a small experiment cube containing freeze-dried biological samples, lands on the ISS it will be plugged into the station’s ICE Cubes Facility. From there, the team on Earth can take control of the robotics and commands to fill the samples with water.

The hydrated samples, which have been genetically programmed to generate fluorescent proteins, will be measured over time to see how quickly they are produced, and if and how they change over time. Once the reactions have finished, the data will be saved and sent back before VITA is unplugged and stored in a fridge on the ISS awaiting it returns to Earth where the team will analyse the results, and the samples.

When I started my PhD, I was thrilled to be working on developing biological platforms that could, one day, form an essential part of human spaceflight. However, little did my first-year self know that I’d be sending my project to the ISS!
Tejasvi Shivakumar, part of Team VITA who is studying for a PhD in Astropharmacy: Space Biology and Space Engineering

Tejasvi continued: “Being part of VITA and working with the ESA has been an incredibly educational opportunity for our team, which comprises bachelor- to doctoral- level students. We look forward to undertaking further research and seeing the experiment make some interesting proteins on board the ISS very soon.”

Orbit Your Thesis! is an educational programme offered by ESA Academy, which allows students to operate their self-developed experiments in the ISS. Now in its third year, the selection process starts with a call for proposals, followed by a data pack delivery to provide a board of experts with a proposal, letter of endorsement, and technical documentation to ensure their experiment is compliant with the ISS’ facility.

Joost Vanreusel, Head of the ESA Academy, said: “We are excited to have team VITA on-board the programme, and look forward to guiding them through the different demanding phases to bring a space project to orbit. Experts at ESA and our programme partners Space Applications Services are more than ready to offer technical advice and project management support, and I am confident that their participation will give the team a life-changing opportunity to kick-start their future professions."

The team has demonstrated their strong and multidisciplinary skills in pharmaceutics and engineering, combined with the eagerness to learn, and the ambition to bring such challenging project to fruition.
Joost Vanreusel, Head of the ESA Academy

Joost continued: “We look forward to the next milestone for the team, which is the Preliminary Design Review, which they will have to pass in order to progress to the subsequent detailed design, manufacturing and launch phases.”

Phil williams cropped
I was absolutely delighted when I heard of the Team’s success in being selected by ESA for this amazing educational opportunity. Their enthusiasm, passion and drive highlight the exciting future for UK space talent and research.
Phil Williams, the Nottingham academic in the School of Pharmacy who established the field of Astropharmacy

Story credits

More information is available from Danielle Hall, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham, at or 0115 846 7156.

Danielle Hall - Media Relations Manager - Faculty of Engineering
Phone: 0115 846 7156

Notes to editors:

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