As it happened: Saudi astronauts arrive at the International Space Station

Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni have joined UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi aboard the orbiting outpost

Saudi astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni arrive at the International Space Station on May 22, 2023. Photo: SpaceX

As it happened: Saudi astronauts arrive at the International Space Station

Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni have joined UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi aboard the orbiting outpost

  • Falcon 9 rocket launched- 1.37am UAE time, Monday, May 22
  • Dragon spacecraft separated from rocket - 1.50am UAE time
  • Saudi astronauts speak live from Dragon spacecraft - 5am UAE time
  • Saudi astronauts arrive at the ISS - 5.12pm UAE time
  • Hatch opened between Dragon and ISS - 7.10pm UAE time
  • Saudi astronauts enter space station - 7.20pm UAE time
  • Welcome ceremony on the space station - 7.45pm UAE time
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Sultan Al Neyadi prepares to welcome Saudi astronauts on space mission

The UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi and fellow crew members on board the International Space Station are preparing to welcome four astronauts arriving next week, including two from Saudi Arabia.

Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi woman astronaut, and Ali Al Qarni have launched on a private trip to the orbiting laboratory, alongside American astronauts Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner.

The trip, called Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2), has been arranged by Houston company Axiom Space. The crew members will live on the ISS for eight days.

"Four station flight engineers joined each other during Tuesday afternoon and reviewed the Ax-2 mission schedule," Nasa said in a statement on Tuesday.

"Nasa astronauts Stephen Bowen, Frank Rubio, and Woody Hoburg, along with UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, familiarised themselves with the upcoming mission activities and reviewed how the crews will co-ordinate during docked operations."

The mission blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Monday, 1.27am, UAE time.

A back-up date of May 23 is also available.

Ms Barnawi and Mr Al Qarni will serve as mission specialists on their trip, while former Nasa astronaut Ms Whitson is the commander and Mr Shoffner will be the pilot.

The mission is set to include several firsts, including the first woman to serve as commander on a private trip, the first Saudi astronauts to go to the ISS, and the first Arab woman on the space station.

It will also be the first time astronauts from two Arab countries have visited the floating laboratory.

Inspiring the Arab world

Mr Al Qarni said in a media briefing on Tuesday that he hoped UAE and Saudi astronauts working together in space would inspire the Arab world.

“I think it is a great opportunity that the three of us can be aboard the International Space Station,” he said.

“It holds a big message that will inspire people and shows the Arab world [that] we are holding hands and working together for the betterment of humanity.”

While the crew on the ISS await the guests, they have been continuing with their assignments.

Dr Al Neyadi and Mr Hoburg spent most of Tuesday working on a treadmill.

They rotated the exercise rack from its stowage position to gain access to its internal electronics components for inspection and cleaning.

Dr Al Neyadi also spent time testing the operations of the Astrobees - cube-shaped robotic devices - for an upcoming student competition.

He and three of his colleagues, two Americans and one Russian, are expected to return to Earth in late August.

Saudi astronauts to conduct cloud-seeding experiments in space

Ali Alqarni, Rayyanah Barnawi and their two American colleagues will carry out 11 science experiments, including a study of cloud seeding in microgravity.

The team launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on May 22, 1.37am GST, for an eight-day mission.

They are part of the Axiom-2 mission by Axiom Space, the second privately led trip to the orbiting laboratory by the Houston-based company.

The trip for Saudi Arabia comes nearly 40 years after the kingdom sent its first astronaut to space.

Saudi astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi during a training session for the Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station, slated for a launch on May 12, 2023, from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Cloud seeding research in space

One of the experiments they will carry out is to test cloud-seeding techniques in a reaction chamber.

Cloud seeding on Earth involves firing silver iodide, or salt crystals, into certain types of clouds, helping to generate rain.

“Cloud seeding has been adopted by many countries to increase precipitation in areas suffering from drought,” Axiom Space said in a statement.

“In this experiment, cloud seeding will be examined for the first time in space under microgravity conditions.

“Moist air and AgI [silver iodide] crystals will be mixed in a reaction chamber to examine the possibility of nucleation, where water vapour condenses on AgI crystals to form water droplets.

“The outcome of this experiment will help develop weather control technology to generate artificial rain in future human settlements on the Moon and Mars.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals is sending the experiment with the help of the Saudi Space Commission and Nanoracks, a US company that helps its customers launch experiments and technology to space.

The UAE is currently leading the way in cloud-seeding efforts in the Middle East, including regular seeding flights and research.

In 2022, the Emirates conducted 311 cloud-seeding missions, clocking up close to 1,000 flying hours.

While cloud seeding could help with the Middle East’s water security, similar techniques could help future explorers create water on other planets.

As space agencies and companies plan to build settlements on the Moon and Mars, it has becoming increasingly important for scientists to create ways for astronauts to build their own resources.

Water is heavy and it would be challenging for rocket companies to deliver large amounts to space.

Studying immune cells

The Saudi astronauts will also carry out an experiment for the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre.

It involves studying the inflammatory response of human immune cells in microgravity.

They will investigate changes in the mRNA – a genetic material that tells the body how to make proteins.

“The crew will take RNA samples for analysis on the ground, where the investigators will monitor RNA expression patterns, and thousands of mRNA half-lives will be measured,” Axiom Space said.

“Results could contribute to a better understanding of space health and uncover biomarkers or potential therapies for inflammatory diseases in space and on Earth.”

Getting pupils involved

School pupils and university students will also take part in research, including studying the differences in fluid behaviour on Earth and in microgravity.

They will be provided with ground kits by DreamUp, a company that creates low-cost access to space research for young people.

“The Stem-focused experiments are conducted in microgravity to educate students on the unique environment of the Space Station,” Axiom Space said.

“These three visual experiments will demonstrate differences in fluid behaviour on Earth and in microgravity, explore the aerodynamic behaviour of different kite shapes on the ISS, and show the effects of the vacuum of space on heat transfer.

“Students across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will participate in ground-based experiments on Earth.”

Updated: May 22, 2023, 4:03 PM