Saudi astronaut Ali al-Qarni attends his training at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., in this photo released by Saudi Press Agency on May 10, 2023. (Reuters)

In Focus

Saudi space mission delivers groundbreaking data for Earth: Astronaut, scientists

Saudi space mission’s intergalactic experiments are providing ‘important’ data for Earth, scientists say.

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Saudi Arabia’s historic mission to the International Space Station is already providing critical data that will help human life on Earth, Saudi astronaut Ali al-Qarni and researchers from the Kingdom have said.

In May, al-Qarni and fellow Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi – the first Arab woman in space – spent a week-long mission on ISS where they performed more than 20 experiments and research projects, including nanomaterial therapeutic applications, such as drug delivery, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine.

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Five months on, speaking at the 74th International Astronautical Congress in Baku, al-Qarni and researchers in Saudi Arabia explained how the work the two astronauts did on the orbital outpost is already wielding results.

Saudi’s foray into space

Saudi astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi onboard ISS. (Supplied: Axiom)

Al-Qarni spoke about the historic mission, thanking Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the opportunity they provided him and Barnawi – and all Saudi youth in the Kingdom.

“I was so excited,” he said, recalling the day of the launch, when he blasted off from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as part of the Axiom 2 space mission to the ISS from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“On the day, we were worried if we would launch because the weather conditions were not favorable. But we did...and the feeling of excitement was very high inside the Dragon (capsule). We were shouting and cheering,” al-Qarni continued.

“Being inside a rocket, launching into space…if you were to tell me that I was going go to space two years ago, I would have said, ‘that’s impossible.’ But the time we live in, in Saudi Arabia, with the support we have from our government and our King and Crown Prince - they make sure that we have everything we need to succeed as a country and to fight for technological improvement.”

Al-Qarni told how his mother recalled the launch and described it as “very emotional.”

“She did not anticipate the huge sound of the main booster. Then, at some point, the footage inside Dragon was not shown, and she was scared that maybe something bad had happened and she was crying.”

Training for ISS

Al-Qarni served as a mission specialist on the Ax-2 mission

Al-Qarni said he and Barnawi trained for ten months for the historic mission and, before launch, worked closely with researchers and experts to ensure they knew the equipment and tools they would be working with onboard the ISS.

“The training itself was very interesting because we had to train in different parts,” he recalled. “Firstly, a training on the space vehicle itself and how to live inside the Dragon capsule when we orbited in free flight in space until we reached the International Space Station, and how to learn what to do inside it and how to mitigate any emergency or situation that could happen.”

“Then, also training on the International Space Station, which is a bigger vehicle orbiting the Earth and also learning the equipment or inside it and the hardware and software that we’re going to be interacting with,” he continued.

“The main part of the mission was to conduct scientific experiments on the International Space Station. So, Rayyanah and I learned to safely operate the hardware onboard the ISS and also worked closely with the scientists on Earth to make sure we had a safe execution for the experiment and that we could relay the data we had back down to Earth so they can analyze what the what we did.”

He added: “Everything you do in space is an experiment. Preparing for sleep and sleeping is also an experiment that keeps changing from night to night. And it’s really interesting how the human body adapts and changes to microgravity and then forgets that gravity exists and just lives in space.”

Al-Qarni and Barnawi were the first Saudi astronauts to visit the ISS. Their voyage also marked the Kingdom as the first nation not part of the official International Space Station partnership to have two astronauts aboard the ISS at the same time.

Cloud seeding in microgravity

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives Saudi astronaut Ali Al-Qarni, along with other senior officials, ahead of the launch of the Kingdom's scientific mission to the International Space Station, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, April 16, 2023. (Reuters)

On board the ISS, al-Qarni and Barnawi conducted an array of experiments. This included cloud seeding – which was examined for the first time in space under microgravity conditions to help develop weather control technology to generate artificial rain in future human settlements on the Moon and Mars.

Dr. Ashraf Farahat, Principal Investigator at King Fahd University of Petroleum And Minerals (KFUPM) in Saudi Arabia, explained on Earth, cloud seeding is a human-made way to induce moisture in the air to cause rainfall.

In this process, either dry ice or solver iodine is dispersed in the air using an aircraft, which leads to rain formation. Alternatively, materials like table salt are increasingly being used. Researchers are also using cloud seeding as one way of increasing winter snowfall.

At least 56 countries – including Saudi Arabia – have used some sort of cloud seeding, according to the World Mereological Organization.

“The idea of the experiment was to do the same thing under micro-gravity conditions,” Farahat said.

The University had partnered with the Saudi Space Center and Axiom as part of the cloud seeding experiment.

“The experiment has been launched, and we have some interesting experiments that we will be sharing with the scientific community very soon,” he added.

Stellar cell research

Saudi astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali al-Qarni return to the Kingdom. (SPA)

The experiments onboard the ISS also looked at stellar stem cells. This project aimed to gather insights into the impact of microgravity on producing stem cells and stem cell-derived products in space.

Using space to evaluate the steps used in terrestrial manufacturing to reprogram skin cells (fibroblasts) into stem cells capable of producing a variety of tissue types (heart, brain, and blood), could support regenerative medicine uses on Earth. The mission also involved space tissue regeneration. Bioengineered liver and kidney tissue constructs were sent to space to assess the impact of microgravity on the vascularization of thick tissues. If successful, this platform technology and approach could lead to the in-space bioengineering of ‘building blocks’ of tissue that can serve as a bridge to transplants in patients awaiting a limited supply of donor organs.

Bader Shirah, a researcher at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, which also partnered with the Saudi Space Center for the mission, explained how the experiments were conducted.

“The experiments we conducted involve examining the brain and nervous system in space in a way that was never done before using novel tools and looking at the brain from the big structure level up to the molecular level,” he said.

“So, the experiments involved looking at the brain structure on blood flow using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which is a device sent for the first time to space.”

Another novel tool - automated pupillometry - was sent to space to examine the pupils of the eye for characteristics of pupillary light reflex in microgravity.

“We also examined the biomarkers…from biological samples obtained from astronauts. The experiments involved collecting data and samples before flight, so to look to have a baseline before exposure to microgravity, and then the second part is done in microgravity to see the effects of spaceflight and effects of microgravity and radiation. And the third part is done post-flight to document recovery and return to baseline.”

“Now these experiments actually provide novel data and novel information about the effects of space travel and the human brain, which is essential if humans want to survive on the Moon, Mars and beyond. And it’s essential for long-term human presence in space.”

“The results are still under processing, but from the preliminary results, I can tell you that all devices are showing important data that is provided for the first time to the world. And once we publish this data, that will be a scientific contribution on which future research is built upon.”

‘Promising results’

Ali al-Qarni and Rayyanah Barnawi. (Supplied: Axiom)

The impact of these experiments is “huge,” according to Shirah.

“Number one is, these experiments will show us the results or the effects of microgravity and radiation on the brain in a way that was not done before, which will constitute the scientific base on which future research is built, which is very important. So, this is one scientific impact. It’s very important.”

Another benefit, he said, is that the mission has encouraged the scientific community in Saudi Arabia to consider space as a research platform, he said.

“Now we have a grant opportunity that is currently underway in the country, and many people are applying to conduct the research and space, so you can see that these experiments had a significant impact, reaching out to all the scientific community in Saudi Arabia.”

“And I believe in the future, medical research is going to be highly needed, especially if we want to go to the moon, Mars asteroids and beyond. So, conducting this research and being involved in such research from the beginning is very important.”

Addressing the next step, Shirah said he would live to see experiments conducted during a longer space mission.

“Many of the devices we flew for the first time need to be flown again in longer duration missions because we have proven them to be successful. I cannot reveal too many results yet, but the results are very impressive. And these devices have significant potential for many future research in space.”

“Also, the samples we got, when integrated with samples from different astronauts over different durations and different missions, will give us a better understanding of the effects of microgravity on the human body. What is next is sending these devices and collecting samples from future astronauts going to space and future missions over longer periods.”

In another experiment, the scientists examined stem cell models that can help predict and prevent cancer.

Khalid Abu Khabar, a researcher at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, specializes in cell science and discussed experiments conducted in space.

He said that they sent leukemic blood cells to space to study them. Scientists refer to this as a “disease in a dish” because it helps them understand how these cells react to different factors, including inflammation, cancer, and stimuli, especially in a microgravity environment like the International Space Station (ISS), said Khabar.

He said scientists are also interested in how these cells respond to therapy, as this knowledge can provide insights into potential future treatments for human health. While these findings are in the discovery stage and not directly applicable to humans yet, they are essential for designing future experiments, especially during longer space flights.

Ahmed al-Ghofaili, head of space exploration and science at the Saudi Space Agency, also discussed Saudi Arabia’s efforts in microgravity research.

While the country has shown enthusiasm in space exploration with over 18 satellites launched, microgravity research “lagged behind”, he said.

To address this, the agency aimed to engage the research and, development and innovation (RDI) community in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom approached this in two ways, he said.

First, they focused on the ecosystem, involving various entities like companies, small and medium enterprises, research institutes, hospitals, and even schools.

Second, they examined scientific themes such as physics, electromagnetics, human research, and biomedicine that could benefit from microgravity experiments.

An open call was initiated to solicit research proposals from entities that faced challenges in reaching space.

The agency aimed to facilitate integration with partners, execute experiments with astronauts, and provide subsidies to support research projects.

They received a significant number of proposals, which were evaluated based on scientific merit and feasibility within the mission’s timeframe, said Ghofaili.

Ultimately, 14 experiments were selected, spanning areas like human research, biomedicine, cell studies, and educational research in physics and other sciences.

The second critical aspect was outreach and awareness to inspire young Arabs to study science, tech, math and engineering (STEM) subjects.

Al-Qarni and Barnawi talked to students in Saudi Arabia via Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, known as the ARISS program, as part of a larger effort to engage students across the nation. (Supplied: SSC)

To engage with the public, particularly students, the agency collaborated with the Ministry of Education.

Initially, they aimed to involve hundreds of students in four major cities. However, the Ministry facilitated 12,000 students from across the country, along with 1,000 teachers, to supervise the experiments.

They also provided venues and live feeds to connect students with astronauts, significantly expanding the outreach efforts.

These initiatives reflect Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fostering microgravity research and involving the younger generation in space-related activities, according to Ghofaili.

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