An Israeli and a Palestinian student are joint participants in an astrobiology experiment sponsored by The Planetary Society on the space shuttle Columbia's mission STS107. The Growth of Bacterial Biofilm on Surfaces during Spaceflight (GOBBSS) experiment was developed by the Israeli Aerospace Medical Institute and the Johnson Space Center Astrobiology Center. The astrobiology experiment is designed to advance understanding of the evolution of life in the universe and to help build peaceful international cooperation in our often divided world.
"Space exploration is a symbol of the linked destiny we all share as humans and as residents of the home we call Earth," said Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Vice President of The Planetary Society. "This project exactly fits the mission of The Planetary Society -- to inspire the people of Earth to explore new worlds and seek other life through research, education and public participation."
The two university students, an Israeli and a Palestinian, are participating with Dr. Eran Schenker of the Israeli Aerospace Medical Institute in seeking data about the effects of space on cells and DNA. Such data might provide new insight to theories of life traveling between planets. Schenker is conducting a series of cell biology experiments that will fly on the Columbia space shuttle as part of ITAís Commercial Payload, the CIBX-2. This is an ITA corporate biomedical payload performing both cancer research and student experiments through a commercial Space Act Agreement between ITA and NASA.
Tariq Adwan, a Palestinian biology student from Bethlehem, and Yuval Landau, an Israeli medical student from Tel Aviv, will be co-investigators on the student experiment. Adwan is currently attending College Misericordia in the United States, while Landau attends Tel Aviv University in Israel.
In addition to Schenker, other scientists advising on the experiment include Palestinians Johnny Younis of Poria University Hospital, Nazareth, and Dr. Ahmad Tibi, physician and Arab member of the Israeli Knesset; and Dr. David Warmflash and Dr. David McKay of NASA Johnson Space Center. Warmflash helped the students design the experiment and was responsible for bringing it to The Planetary Society as a peaceful science initiative.
"The experiment is primarily a demonstration to show how people, united by a common goal, can work together to answer questions that have intrigued all humanity for ages," said Warmflash. "However, this is also a useful and original experiment that may contribute valuable insight into the question of life in the cosmos."
The GOBBSS experiment will help test the much debated "panspermia" hypothesis -- the belief that microorganisms from other planets arrived on Earth in the distant past and helped spur the development of life on Earth.
"Especially in this unstable time," said Younis, "I am happy to take part in the selection process of students from both sides to work together on a united bio-space study."
The experiment, which combines ideas proposed by the two students, involves a sample of bacterial cells enclosed within a compartment in a special container carried in the shuttle's Spacehab module. Once the shuttle is in orbit, an astronaut will activate the experiment container, releasing the bacterial sample into a second compartment, which contains inorganic crystal material similar in structure to the meteorites that have traveled from Mars to Earth. Before returning to Earth, the astronauts will deactivate the study, causing a fixing agent from a third compartment to mix with the bacteria-exposed material.
Once the container has been returned to Earth, the students and their advisors will examine the bacteria using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to see how well the bacteria grew on the material, if at all. They will compare the results with those from a parallel experiment done on the ground.
"If the organisms produce a biofilm under weightless conditions, it will add weight to the hypothesis that organisms can be transported by meteorites from one planet to another and possibly seed a lifeless planet," said Warmflash.
Seeds of Peace, an organization dedicated to increasing understanding and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian youth, is working with The Planetary Society in this project. Seeds of Peace and the Israeli Aerospace Medical Institute advertised the experiment to university students in Israel and Palestine to seek their participation. The Peres Center For Peace is also helping support and promote the Science for Peace project.
"The Planetary Society believes that the study and exploration of space not only expands our horizons out into the universe, but also brings together the people of Earth," said Dr. Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. "The organization has long been committed to advancing international cooperation in peaceful space exploration, beginning with cooperative ventures with scientists in the Soviet Union in the 1980's and continuing today with programs around the world with -- and in -- many nations. The GOBBSS experiment is especially apropos since the concept of panspermia reminds us that life everywhere is connected and that what we share far outstrips what divides us."