Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
Youth page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Spider man

Ayoung scientist speaks to Sarah Eissa about his experiment in outer space

Click to view caption

While expressing himself, his mind and eyes seem to be aiming at space. Amr Mohamed, 19, is one of the two global winners of the YouTube Space Lab competition and Mohamed's experiment on jumping spiders is currently being implemented in the International Space Station (ISS). In the experiment, spiders are being filmed and Mohamed is constantly updated with a results summary. This month there will be a live broadcast on YouTube about everything since the competition started as well as special videos about building the rocket and the experiments.

YouTube Lab is an international competition challenging students from 14 to 18 years old to design an experiment to be implemented in space.

Mohamed started with research on animal history in space and how they helped in exploring it. The first spider web created in space drew his attention. He explains that the Orb Weaver spider Esmeralda was able to build an unorganised and less dense web in space due to micro-gravity but nevertheless trapped her prey. He said it was hard to know if the spider successfully adapted in space because he couldn't make the web on the floor as he usually does.

Inspired by Esmeralda, Mohamed participated in the competition by choosing the jumping spider. "It doesn't build webs thus gravity is a factor affecting its survival," Mohamed said. "On earth he fixes his trajectory angle and measures the distance to assume the space and angle to land precisely on his prey. My expected result is that there will be many trials and errors until he realises that he just needs to jump in a straight line and doesn't need to compensate with gravity."

When Mohamed was applying for the contest he was in the process of sending his college application. "All I cared about was the college application, not the competition, I was in a gap year and had to be accepted in college." He said he wanted to show in the application that he was active and participated in competitions.

Mohamed is currently studying in the science and engineering department at Stanford University.

Mohamed's global winner prize was either watching the experiment launching from Japan or receiving astronaut training in Star City, Russia. He chose the second and was trained for around 10 days, while the actual astronaut training takes seven years individually before team training.

Training included manually docking the spacecraft inside the ISS. "It usually happens automatically, but sometimes the team captain has to dock it manually which is very tricky and needs to be exact."

During the training they study spacesuits "but a big part of it is theoretical which was boring." He said some of what they have to study is not beneficial like knowing that the suit will weigh 120 kilos "while anyhow it will be zero in space."

Some of the interesting things Mohamed discovered was that when wearing the spacesuit he could look anywhere except directly, "so they use mirrors placed in the suits to see and control the suit which is very tricky."

Asked whether he would like to be an astronaut Mohamed said no Egyptian could become one "unless we have a space agency or enter the space programme. It needs so much experience and a budget and years of study and work." To be part of the space programme, Mohamed said European Union countries must agree along with Japan, Russia and America but added that the US rejects most countries.

As a child Mohamed's favourite subjects were scientific, though space is special. "Space is the best science," he says. "Besides being interdisciplinary it is very global; no one cares about nationality. The whole universe is coordinating to accomplish the mission. Russians, Germans, Japanese, Americans should be applauded for working together in the same environment in the ISS for the future of humanity despite having years of bad blood between them."

Mohamed believes that earth is like the ISS floating around the sun. There should be no borders or weapons. "No one in space will think of hurting you because we are in the same crew. Same on earth, citizens are in the same crew and if anybody is harmed, somebody else will be harming the universe."

He said the Curiosity robot (exploring Mars) cost $2.5 billion, "yet people are upset by the amount of money and are attacking NASA's budget cuts while London's Olympics reached $18 billion and according to some reports could reach $36 billion." He criticised the amount of money paid for the US army and bet if the money paid for weapons went to space discovery, "we could reach Mars in only two years."

He adds that a billion years ago there was water on Mars." Now it disappeared and no one knows why. What if that happened to us? We don't have a Plan B. Instead of spending on the military it should go to scientific exploration."

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