Rats may soon travel to the International Space Station, in a new experiment being designed by NASA.
Rodent astronauts could be launched to the space station before the end of the year, according to the national space agency. Rats have flown to space before, including trips aboard the space shuttle. However, each of these missions only lasted just a few weeks. This new experiment could run for months, exploring the effects of long-term space travel on the tiny mammals. The actual length of rat occupation on the ISS will depend on the availability of spacecraft like the Dragon capsule to ferry the animals from and to the Earth. Another challenge facing the space-faring rodents will be splashdown. Dragon typically spends several hours in the ocean after splashdown, a situation that could prove detrimental to the rats.
NASA is preparing to send a human crew to Mars sometime during the 2030's. This experiment could assist medical researchers in learning how life is affected by extended periods of time in a microgravity environment.
Rats are extremely useful to mission specialists working on ISS experiments for the same reason they are to scientists on Earth - their brain structure is much like that of human beings.
Fruit flies are another species that NASA hopes to study aboard the ISS. The tiny insects share roughly 700 of the 900 genes known to carry disease in human beings. Their short lifespans and rapid reproduction make the diminutive animals an excellent choice for studying inheritable traits.
Veggie, or the Veg-1 experiment, was recently flown to the space station aboard a Dragon cargo ship, which arrived in April. This experiment, currently in progress, is to study methods of growing lettuce and other crops in orbit. Protein crystals have also been studied, providing insight into their growth and development.
"The space station is the perfect laboratory for these long-term types of study experiments," Marshall Porterfield, director of the space life and physical sciences division for NASA, told the press.
Expedition 40, the current crew aboard the ISS, is engaged in around 20 separate experiments, most of them directly related to human health. Exercise equipment originally aboard the orbiting outpost was inadequate for crew members, and NASA upgraded the devices.
"[W]e identified new facilities that we needed, like new rodent and plant habitats, and starting this year, those facilities are going to keep coming online one-by-one, and each will be used on every flight over and over on the space station for the next 10 years," Julie Robinson, chief program scientist for the International Space Station, said.