Some 11 pioneering scientific research experiments, ranging from human research and cell science to artificial rain in microgravity, will be conducted by two Saudi astronauts in space during the second quarter of this year.

As part of the mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Saudi astronauts, Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Alqarni, will conduct the artificial rain experiment, in which water vapour will be condensed on plankton and salt atoms in microgravity that simulate the cloud seeding process that is used in Saudi Arabia and many other countries to increase precipitation rates, the Saudi Space Commission (SSC) has revealed.

Led by Dr Ashraf Farahat, this experiment is for the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals and will help scientists and researchers devise new ways to provide suitable conditions for humans - including the stimulation of artificial rain - to live in space colonies on the surface of the Moon and Mars.

Rain-seeding technology

The experiment will also contribute to improving researchers' understanding of rain-seeding technology, which will contribute to increasing rainfall in many countries.

To better understand the impacts of being in space on human health, Saudi's Nebula Research and Development, led by Dr Bader Shirah, is conducting six experiments aboard the ISS, which will be performed by the astronauts. These experiments will utilise novel neuroscience tools including measuring blood flow to the brain and the brain's electrical activity, assess intracranial pressure by non-invasive assessment of the pupil of the eye, and monitor changes in the optic nerve over time.

Improved monitoring of neurological health may help make spaceflight safer in the future and allow for the development of rapid, non-invasive monitoring, as well as early interventions and the development of countermeasures. Blood and bio-sample specimens will also be taken to examine multi-omic biomarkers related to spaceflight and to map changes in the length, structure, and epigenetics of chromosomes and telomeres.

Cell science

The cell science experiments lead by the world-renowned King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center (KFSHRC) and its team of scientists, Dr Khalid Abu Khabar, Dr Wijdan Alahmadi and Dr Edward Hitti, will be investigating the inflammatory response of human immune cells in microgravity. More specifically their research will be focused on changes in mRNA decay, a process that can turn inflammation off. In addition, response to therapy is mimicked by utilising the same cellular model.

The crew will take RNA samples for analysis on ground, where the investigators will monitor RNA expression patterns, and excitedly thousands of mRNA half-lives will be measured. Results are expected to contribute to a better understanding of space health and uncover biomarkers or potential therapies for inflammatory diseases in both Space and Earth.

In addition to these experiments, three educational awareness experiments will be conducted aboard the ISS in real time with students across Saudi, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Mawhiba, Riyadh Schools and Misk Schools.

Enhancing knowledge

The objective of these experiments is to enhance the students' knowledge of space science and its contribution to improving the quality of life on Earth, by juxtaposing their terrestrial based experiments to the ones being conducted in real-time by the Saudi crew aboard ISS. Students can see first-hand how the experiment environment can have a real effect on the results. This real-time interaction ensures that students will have access to the Saudi crew live as they perform their experiments together, one on Earth, and one in space simultaneously.

The efforts by the SSC are designed to prepare future astronauts and engineers, through quality educational and training programmes, participation in scientific experiments, international research and future space-related missions – all of which will contribute to raising the status of the kingdom and to achieving the goals of the kingdom's Vision 2030.

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