Thursday, February 18, 2010

NASA Enhances Space Expertise Through Middle East Alliances

By Carrie Loewenthal Massey

Washington - In addition to sending spacecraft into orbit and testing weather patterns on the moon, the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) forges international partnerships that provide for research advancement and educational exchange.

Several collaborations pair NASA with scientists, researchers, universities, and schools in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).


NASA and Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) will conduct lunar and asteroid research. The partnership, announced December 15, 2009, allows for the Saudi Lunar and Near-Earth Object Science Center to contribute to the NASA Lunar Science Institute its expertise in radar and infrared imaging, laser ranging and imaging, topographical studies, as well as near-Earth object science. Near-Earth objects are comets and asteroids that have entered Earth's neighborhood as a result of the gravitational pull from other planets.

With the added knowledge from the Saudi Lunar and Near-Earth Object Center, NASA can progress toward its goals in lunar science.

"NASA's Lunar Science Institute exists to conduct cutting-edge lunar science and train the next generation of lunar scientists and explorers," Greg Schmidt, institute deputy director at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in a press release. "Our international partnerships are critical for meeting these objectives, and we are very excited by the important science, training and education that our new Saudi colleagues bring to the NASA Lunar Science Institute."

The collaboration between the United States and Saudi Arabia falls within the scope of the memorandum of understanding on science and technology signed by both countries in December 2008.

"This is an important advance in our growing program of bilateral science and technology cooperation," U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith said in a press release. "It will help realize President Obama's goal, expressed in his June 4 speech to the Muslim world, of increasing our cooperation on science and technology, which we believe closely corresponds to King Abdullah's vision," Smith added.

KACST Vice President for Research Institutes Turki Bin Saud Bin Mohammad Al-Saud also expressed enthusiasm on the launch of the partnership.

"[W]e are looking forward to our expanding collaboration with NASA for the benefit of both countries," he said.


In other MENA countries, NASA has formed alliances with universities and schools to help design and implement greater opportunities for science education.

On January 18, NASA officials and others met with Under Secretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Education Muhammad Abu Zeid to discuss developing a university degree program in astronomy and astrophysics for Palestinian institutions. The participants expressed hope that the availability of the credential would encourage the study of these fields at Palestinian colleges and science centers, according to Ma'an News Agency, an independent news organization in the Palestinian Territories.

In Iraq, NASA works to fortify the country's education infrastructure as part of the post-war reconstruction effort. Malcom Phelps, a NASA education official and senior education adviser for the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), has focused since 2008 on rebuilding and enhancing offerings at Baghdad's universities. The PRT has helped support an engineering school laboratory and arranged for a U.S. engineering accreditation board to come to Baghdad to assist in guiding further progress. Phelps and his team are also working to implement a program that will train 200 Iraqi faculty to advise students on study opportunities in the United States.

"The students who are educated in the U.S. will return to Iraq and contribute to economic development and a hopeful future," Phelps said, adding that NASA may be able to facilitate some of the study-abroad programs.

Along with his work on the university level, Phelps has teamed with the Iraqi Ministry of Education to supervise $20 million in school refurbishments. The PRT helped correct damage and reopen 200 schools. Phelps explained that this effort to increase educational opportunity in Iraq mirrors NASA's commitment to education at home, where the agency strives to retain students in mathematics, science and technology programs to ensure a strong future workforce.


In November 2009, several volunteers from NASA and professors from American universities traveled to Morocco to facilitate a week of astronomy education programs. Organized by Grove of Hope, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit founded by NASA scientist Kamal Oudrhiri, the Science Week Morocco 2009 Project reached out to young students, teachers, families and university scholars. Grove of Hope strives to provide science education in Africa and the United States to inspire children to pursue careers in science and empower them to contribute to technology advancement and sustainable development.

While in Morocco, the volunteers led thousands of students in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier through rotations of interactive labs that provided hands-on experience in rocketry, robotics engineering, telescope use and planetary sciences, with a focus on exploring Mars.
"The students asked a lot of important questions and they were so involved," said Oudrhiri, who is Moroccan American. "It was a confirmation that space, irrelevant of the language you speak or your background, really unifies and brings people closer. We spoke that common language, which is that we are all connected to space and Earth."
Oudrhiri expressed his amazement at the 13- and 14-year-old students' existing level of knowledge of the Mars rover and their familiarity with NASA Web sites.
"I think everyone gets excited about space exploration," he said.

Along with the student workshops, Grove of Hope leaders led several other programs throughout the week. Three days of teacher training helped Moroccan teachers learn how to bring innovative, yet feasible, science lessons into their classrooms, while a family night with NASA astronaut Loren Acton featured an interactive theatrical performance that took the audience on a journey through the universe. Finally, at the Hassan II Academy of Science and Technology, Grove of Hope volunteers taught university students and professors how to retrieve science data from NASA's systems, as well as how to translate raw science data into published research.

Grove of Hope's Science Week coincided with another workshop NASA representatives held in Morocco to introduce and encourage Moroccan universities to take part in NASA's research on space weather, solar storms that affect the Earth's upper atmosphere. Energy and radiation from the storms have the potential to cause power surges and blackouts on Earth, as well as damage to electronics aboard orbiting spacecraft and harm to astronauts, according to NASA.

At the workshop, experimenters from the United States, Japan, Switzerland and France presented plans to researchers from 14 Moroccan universities for instrumentation they would like to prepare to observe space-weather events. The experimenters wanted the Moroccan institutions to host the equipment because of Morocco's unique position in relation to the magnetic equator, which passes through the center of Africa.
"Morocco is just far enough north where it sees the edges of these [atmospheric] instabilities. It's an important site for us," said Joseph Davila, a NASA senior scientist in the heliophysics division who also volunteered with the Grove of Hope program.

As a result of the meeting, five universities committed to hosting six space-weather instruments. Davila expects the instruments will be put in place during the spring and summer of 2010, after which NASA will hold a follow-up meeting to discuss additional opportunities for instrument placement in Morocco.
"I think it would be useful to have 20 to 25 instruments in place in the country," Davila said.

The space weather network has instruments in several MENA countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. According to Davila, the region is ripe for expansion in this research.
"A lot of scientists are interested in observing phenomena in this region because it's a new area. In the future, this is something people will want to be doing even more of," he said.

Published by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State