When the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Cape Canaveral, Fla., after its final voyage last week, it returned with three Israeli experiments.
American astronaut Sandy Magnus working on the middeck of Atlantis last week to secure all the life science experiments conducted in space during the shuttle’s final mission. [Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies photo].
After the landing, crews at NASA's Kennedy Space Center unloaded the Israeli scientific payloads, which included microgravity experiments on telomeres – DNA sequences that protect chromosomes from erosion – another study on bone cells, and one on water purification.
All three experiments were organized by Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, a nonprofit organization that receives funding from the Israeli Ministry of Science and has worked with NASA and other space agencies to bring Israeli experiments into space.
Atlantis’ crew retrieved the bone cell study – a joint project between the institute and Hebrew University – from the International Space Station after it had been left behind by the Space Shuttle Endeavour on NASA’s penultimate May shuttle mission. It was the first time an Israeli experiment had been kept on board the station.
NASA’s shuttle program was mothballed after Atlantis’ last mission to the ISS.
The institute posits that its telomere experiment might lead to better ways of dealing “with cellular aging processes and their harmful products,” the Institute said in a statement.
The telomere study is being done in co-operation with Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology for her work on telomeres and DNA.
Dr. Eran Schenker, head of the Fisher Institute’s Aerospace Medicine Research Center, was at the shuttle landing in Florida last week to supervise the retrieval and analysis of the Israeli experiments and help transfer them to partner laboratories worldwide waiting to analyze the data collected in space.
Speaking to The CJN from Florida last week, Schenker said he didn’t regard the end of the shuttle program as an obstacle for future Israeli-American space ventures. Rather, he said the future now lies with emergent “commercial” space programs in the United States.
He said results from the telomere experiment should be published in about one year.
Beyond that, Schenker confirmed that Israel had already secured a spot on an upcoming 2012 Russian mission to the ISS and was looking forward to continued partnerships with space agencies around the world.
In a statement, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Asaf Agmon, head of the Fisher Institute, said he attached “great importance” to Israel's participation in experiments conducted in space.
“As the final shuttle lands, it is a nice summary to Israeli activity in the shuttle program, to be bringing back an experiment which has been circling the Earth.”
Agmon said the results of the water purification experiment, done in partnership with the Strauss Group, Israel's second-largest food and beverage company, could potentially “affect all human life all over the globe.
“The research tests a new water purification technology under zero gravity in space. [It] is a polymer-based bio-medical technology designed to purify drinking water by effectively removing bacteria and viruses,” he said.
Israel is one of nine countries with space-launch capability. The others are the United States, Russia, Ukraine, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, China, India and Iran.
Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, perished along with the rest of the space shuttle Columbia crew when the craft exploded on re-entry from orbit on Feb. 1, 2003.