Mousetronauts: Ten Mice Astronauts Have Been Sent to the ISS

Tuesday, 03 July 2018 - 12:14PM
Space
Astrobiology
Tuesday, 03 July 2018 - 12:14PM
Mousetronauts: Ten Mice Astronauts Have Been Sent to the ISS
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Image Credit: Outer Places created from Public Domain
Along with monkeys and dogs, mice are one of the few species that have racked up major frequent flyer miles on spacecraft, and now ten more have been sent up to the International Space Station aboard the most recent SpaceX Dragon capsule to help NASA scientists prepare for sending humans to Mars.

The experiment actually consists of twenty mice: ten in space and ten here on Earth. The latter group are being kept in a NASA simulator that will mirror the conditions aboard the ISS, but without the zero gravity. Those mice will serve as a control group. One of the key goals of the experiment is to measure the effects of space travel on the microbiomes of living animals, specifically the bacteria in the gut. Right now, it's hypothesized that the stress of zero gravity can cause detrimental health effects, especially if the stress is prolonged for nine months (the estimated length of time it would take for a spacecraft to reach Mars).



Another goal of the experiment is to test how space travel affects the circadian rhythm, the cycle that regulates the timing of sleeping, waking, eating, and more in animals. According to Martha Vitaterna, one of the researchers associated with the project: "It's important to understand how space travel may impact the circadian system, since it coordinates so many biological processes. The exertion of liftoff, absence of gravity, and confined living arrangement all add to the stress of life in space, and the key to adapting may be in the body's ability to maintain harmony across systems." 

The experiment is a sort of a sequel to NASA's Year in Space research project, which tested the health effects of floating around in space by studying a pair of twins—Scott Kelly, who was sent into space, and Mark Kelly, who was kept on Earth. The results were pretty astonishing: around 7% of Scott's DNA was shown to differ from Mark's after his stint in space, including the structure of his telomeres (the tips of his chromosomes). However, the biggest genetic surprises may still be in store—depending on much radiation Martian settlers soak up, human colonists may not be able to conceive children on Mars.
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