Planetary Society Recovers Shuttle Experiment from Columbia Debris

For Immediate Release
May 01, 2003

Mat Kaplan
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

A Planetary Society-sponsored astrobiology experiment, with joint participation of an Israeli and a Palestinian student, will be retrieved Monday, May 5 from the container that carried it aloft on space shuttle Columbia's final mission. 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 and launched as part of an ITA Commercial Payload.

"Recovery of this experiment means a great deal to all those involved," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the Planetary Society. "The Israeli-Palestinian student participation represented one small effort to encourage peace through science."

Designed to advance understanding of the evolution of life in the universe and to help build peaceful international cooperation, GOBBSS will be retrieved from its payload package on Monday at Kennedy Space Center. The recovery team includes Eran Schenker of the Israeli Aerospace Medical Institute; David Warmflash of NASA Johnson Space Center; John Cassanto of ITA; and Friedman.

Tariq Adwan, a Palestinian biology student from Bethlehem, and Yuval Landau, an Israeli medical student from Tel Aviv, are co-investigators on the GOBBSS experiment. Adwan is currently attending College Misericordia in the United States, while Landau attends Tel Aviv University in Israel. The students hope that the experiment will be intact and plan to work with Schenker and Warmflash in its analysis.

The GOBBSS experiment, housed in a CIBX (Commercial ITA Biomedical Experiments) payload, was activated in space along with eleven other experiments, including some related to cancer research. The recovery operation will begin Monday morning with the disassembly of the Dual Materials Dispersion Apparatus units inside the payload. GOBBSS and the other experiments will be removed and transferred to alternate containers, a several-hour procedure.

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 to theories 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.

The experiment enclosed a sample of bacterial cells within a compartment in a CIBX container carried 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, causing a fixing agent from a third compartment to mix with the bacteria-exposed material.

The students and their advisors hope to 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.

In addition to Schenker and Warmflash, another scientist advising on the experiment is 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 peace initiative.

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.

About The Planetary Society

With a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts, The Planetary Society is the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organization. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman and today led by CEO Bill Nye, we empower the public to take a meaningful role in advancing space exploration through advocacy, education outreach, scientific innovation, and global collaboration. Together with our members and supporters, we’re on a mission to explore worlds, find life off Earth, and protect our planet from dangerous asteroids. To learn more, visit