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Planetary Society Recovers Columbia Shuttle Experiment


Mat Kaplan
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

On May 5 and 6, The Planetary Society joined with Instrumentation Technology Associates (ITA) in retrieving its astrobiology experiment samples from a payload package that survived the catastrophic breakup of the Columbia orbiter on Feb 1, 2003. The Society's Growth of Bacterial Biofilm on Surfaces during Spaceflight (GOBBSS) experiment was one of nine Commercial ITA Biomedical Experiments (CIBX) which ITA provided for the shuttle flight.

The Planetary Society-sponsored GOBBSS experiment was developed by the Israeli Aerospace Medical Institute and the Johnson Space Center Astrobiology Center, based on a concept from two university students -- an Israeli and a Palestinian.

The recovery team included Eran Schenker of the Israeli Aerospace Medical Institute; David Warmflash of NASA Johnson Space Center; John Cassanto of ITA; and Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. The team carefully opened the damaged box in which the experiments were contained, then opened the experiments' container and extracted the samples which had flown on the shuttle.

"We must await definitive examinations in the laboratory with scanning electron microscopes," said Warmflash, "but the GOBBSS experiment sample looks good and viable."

GOBBSS was designed to advance understanding of the evolution of life in the universe and to help build peaceful international cooperation. While the students, Tariq Adwan, a Palestinian biology student from Bethlehem, and Yuval Landau, an Israeli medical student from Tel Aviv, could not be on hand to retrieve the experiment, they will take an active part in the analysis of the samples in the next few weeks and months. Adwan attends College Misericordia in the United States, while Landau attends Tel Aviv University in Israel.

"Everyone involved is very gratified to be part of this retrieval," noted Louis Friedman. "Salvaging even one small part of the mission, and getting some scientific results, adds to the positive hope for the future inherent in space exploration."

The GOBBSS material will be sent to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston where the science team will analyze the samples, studying the effects of space flight on bacterial growth. Such data might provide new insight on the possibility of life traveling between planets. The much debated "panspermia" hypothesis proposes that microorganisms from other planets arrived on Earth in the distant past and helped spur the development of life on Earth.

GOBBSS enclosed a sample of bacterial cells within a compartment in a CIBX container in the shuttle's Spacehab module. Once the shuttle was in orbit, an astronaut activated the experiment container, releasing the bacterial sample into a second compartment, which contained inorganic crystal material similar in structure to the meteorites that have traveled from Mars to Earth. Before returning to Earth, the experiment was deactivated when a fixing agent from a third compartment was mixed with the bacteria-exposed material.

The students and their advisors will examine the sample 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. David McKay of NASA Johnson Space Center is also an advisor with the experiment.

Warmflash helped the students design the experiment and was responsible for bringing it to The Planetary Society as a peaceful science initiative where an Israeli and a Palestinian student could work together.

The other experiments in the payload package included Urokinase Cancer Research, Micro-encapsulation of Drugs, Food Products in Space and Biofilm Formation. Some of the samples from these other experiments also appear viable, although several samples were lost or damaged as a result of the severe break-up of the shuttle, heating experienced and the impact with the ground.

ITA, a commercial space company located in Exton, Pennsylvania, provides CIBX hardware and access to the Space Shuttle through a National Space Act Agreement with NASA. Ten shuttle missions have carried their payloads of microgravity experiments.

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