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Sheepish in space: Inside New Zealand company Lanaco’s plan to use wool to keep astronauts safe

Space. The final frontier. These are the adventures of… sheep?

Sure, a sheep in outer space isn’t exactly what one normally thinks of when they think of exploring the stars. But it soon could be, since New Zealand is on its way to space (and no, we’re not talking about Rocket Lab, though they’re pretty awesome, too).

In 2023, a new era of space exploration will begin when NASA’s deep space exploration craft Orion is set to blast off with four astronauts and a piece of the South Island High Country.  Yes, you guessed it: sheep from Aotearoa are going to space. Or their wool, anyway. 

Sourced from purpose-bred sheep in Otago, refined in Auckland and now under evaluation at NASA’s Houston Space Centre, a new wool air-filter could play a critical role in protecting astronauts in the event of a fire on board. The filter, called the Helix, is designed by Kiwi wool innovators Lanaco. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because they’re the same folks who created an entirely new breed of sheep – called the Astino – for the wool used in anti-pollution face masks (called Meo – check out Idealog’s story on them here) that were unveiled in 2017 and designed by none other than Karen Walker.

Like the face masks, the Helix’s wool also comes from the Astino. Currently, it’s being tested for use in the Orion’s emergency life-support system in case there’s a fire on board. In short the Helix filter could be used as a pre-filter layer for emergency personal equipment and cabin air systems, preventing clogging in other filter layers by removing thick contaminants like molten plastic.

Lanaco head of technology Shaun Tan, who recently returned from the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, is certainly confident of the Kiwi-made product being able to meet NASA’s stringent requirements for use in outer space. “NASA found us using a technology scout – they were looking for a company that could provide a filter solution for their unique problem with fires in space,” he says of how the partnership with NASA began.

But even though they were “scouted” by the only people (so far) to put humans on the moon, Tan says it’s been a pleasant surprise things have progressed as far as they have. “There is so much involved in each component or technology sent to space, it has been an interesting learning experience for us,” he says.

So what’s next? Says Tan: “Further evaluation and testing, and hopefully full acceptance next year.”

Currently, Orion test flights are scheduled to last well into the 2020s. Following that, the craft could be used to take humans back to the moon, on to Mars, and possibly even beyond. But no matter if the Helix filter and the Astino’s wool will one day help take humanity to another planet for the first time, Tan believes the journey so far says a lot about innovation in Aotearoa. “We believe our NASA collaboration shows the depth and breadth of innovation in New Zealand. Not just low cost commodity agricultural produce, but the ability to develop high value functional materials from what we know and what we grow.”

Lanaco’s Shaun Tan (centre) at NASA.

Quick to also thank the wool industry (especially the Wool Industrial Research Organisation) as well Callaghan Innovation and AgResearch – among others – for their support, Tan adds says there are some lessons other entrepreneurs can learn. “There are opportunities out there that you sometimes never expect – when once-in-a-lifetime things like these come about, you have to pounce on them and do everything you can to make sure it goes well!”

Following on to that, Lanaco CEO Nick Davenport says that recent successes demonstrate the versatility and effectiveness of wool-based air filtration. “Wool is an outstanding fibre. Its electrostatic properties catch small harmful particles, its protein structure captures gases and harmful toxins and yet the fibre is bacteria and flame resistant. We believe in wool as a sustainable, innovative solution to combat air-pollution.

“The Lanaco story is one of New Zealand high-country farmers producing the world’s greatest natural fibre to protect people from poor quality air. To now be playing a role in supporting deep space exploration is a testament to the farmers, scientists and manufacturers that have pushed Lanaco to the forefront of filter technology.”

But let’s just shear things down a bit: the phrase “sheep in space” has a pretty awesome ring to it – and would be even cooler if it literally happens.

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