A Russian space capsule carrying lizards, mice, gerbils, fish and other creatures has safely returned to Earth, but not all of its animal passengers survived the month-long spaceflight, according to news reports.
The Bion-M1 space capsule launched into space on April 19 atop a Russian-built Soyuz 2 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On Sunday (May 19) the capsule came back to Earth, guided with the help of a parachute system to the ground in Russia’s Orenburg region. It is the longest animal astronaut mission of its kind.
The Bion-M1 space capsule, which will carry animals into space in April 2013, is seen during mission preparations at its Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan.
CREDIT: Russian Federal Space Agency
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Space officials reportedly discovered that more than half of the 45 mice aboard the spacecraft died during the flight, the AFP reported. All eight Mongolian gerbils and many of the other critters also did not survive, but all 15 geckos did survive, the news service reported. [See photos of the Bion-M1 space animals mission]
According to Russian scientists, some losses were to be expected during the flight, and the mission still promises to yield valuable data from experiments on how space travel affects living things. The capsule spent 30 days orbiting 357 miles (575 kilometers) above Earth. Scientists planned to humanely euthanize the animals after their return to Earth in order to complete the experiments.
A Russian Soyuz rocket soars toward orbit carrying the Bion-M1 animal-carrying space capsule on April 19, 2013 after a smooth launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.
Animals have been launched into orbit in the past. In the early days of spaceflight, both the United States and the Soviet Union launched animals to space to test the safety of launching humans into orbit
But the Bion-M1 mission marks longest experiment of its kind.
“This is the first time that animals have been put in space on their own for so long,” Vladimir Sychov of the Russian Academy of Sciences was quoted as saying by AFP in announcing the capsule’s return. Sychov added that “less than half of the mice made it — but that was to be expected.”
The project was run by Russia’s Federal Space Agency, also called Roscosmos, but an international team of scientists was overseeing the mission’s experiments. It was the first Russian space mission to launch animals into orbit in 17 years. Prior to Bion-M1, the most recent animal space mission for Russia was a Bion flight that sent rhesus monkeys, geckos and amphibians into orbit for 15 days in 1996.
Geckos will fly on the Russian Bion M1 space mission for the purposes of biological research.
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Nicole Rayl, project manager for NASA’s portion of the Bion-M1 animal astronaut mission, told SPACE.com in April that the flight would be important because of its duration and because it would allow scientists to analyze data with tools that weren’t available to them during previous similar missions.
Scientists had prepared a battery of experiments designed to test how space travel would affect the bodies of the animals. One of the NASA experiments was aimed at studying how microgravity and radiation would impact sperm motility in mice. With eye toward long, interplanetary missions, Rayl said that test would be important to help determine if humans can procreate from sex in space.
According to the Associated Press, the animals were to be flown to Moscow after landing to undergo a series of tests at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, where Sychov is deputy director.
Animals have been launched into orbit in the past. In the early days of spaceflight, both the United States and the Soviet Union launched animals to space to test the safety of launching humans into orbit.
In the early days of rocket science, no one knew what the effects of weightlessness would be. Animals — mainly dogs, monkeys and chimps — were used to test the safety and feasibility of launching a living being into space and bringing it back unharmed.
Since then, animals have continued to play an important role in understanding the impact of microgravity on many biological functions. Astronauts have studied all kinds of animals — wasps, beetles, tortoises, flies, worms, fish, spiders, rabbits, bees, ants, frogs, mice, crickets, rats, newts, snails, urchins, moths, brine shrimp, jellyfish, guinea pigs, butterflies, scorpions and cockroaches.
Sputnik and Muttnik
Laika was a young, mostly-Siberian husky. She was rescued from the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists assumed that a stray dog would have already learned to endure harsh conditions of hunger and cold temperatures. Laika and two other dogs were trained for space travel by being kept in small cages and learning to eat a nutritious gel that would be their food in space.
The dog’s name was originally Kudryavka, or Little Curly, but she became known internationally as Laika, a Russian word for several breeds of dog similar to a husky. American reporters dubbed her Muttnik as a pun on Sputnik.
Unfortunately, Laika’s trip into space was one-way only. A re-entry strategy could not be worked out in time for the launch. It is unknown exactly how long Laika lived in orbit — perhaps a few hours or a few days — until the power to her life-support system gave out. Sputnik 2 burned up in the upper atmosphere in April 1958.
The first animal astronauts
Although there is no distinct boundary between the atmosphere and space, an imaginary line about 68 miles (110 kilometers) from the surface, called the Karman line, is usually where scientists say Earth’s atmosphere meets outer space.
The first animals to reach space — not counting any bacteria that may have hitched a ride on previous rockets — were fruit flies. On Feb. 20, 1947, the United States put fruit flies aboard captured German V-2 rockets to study radiation exposure at high altitudes. In 3 minutes and 10 seconds, the fruit flies reached a distance of 68 miles.
The first mammal in space was Albert II, a Rhesus monkey. Albert I’s mission had been unsuccessful, but the second Albert reached a distance of 83 miles on June 14, 1949. Albert was anesthetized during flight and implanted with sensors to measure his vital signs. Unfortunately, Albert II died upon impact at re-entry.
While the United States was experimenting with monkeys, the Soviet Union was experimenting with dogs. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union had slots for at least 57 dogs. However, because some dogs flew more than once, fewer than 57 actually participated.
The first dogs launched, Tsygan and Dezik, were aboard the R-1 IIIA-1. The dogs reached space on July 22, 1951, but did not orbit. They were the first mammals successfully recovered from spaceflight.
After Laika, the Soviet Union sent two more dogs, Belka and Strelka, into space on Aug. 19, 1960. The animals were the first to actually orbit and return alive.
Ham the chimpanzee after his successful suborbital spaceflight of Jan. 31, 1961.
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Other members of the first space menagerie include:
Gordo, a squirrel monkey, launched 600 miles high on Dec. 13, 1958. He died on splashdown when a flotation device failed.
Able, a Rhesus monkey, and Baker, a squirrel monkey, were launched together on May 28, 1959. They flew 300 miles high and returned unharmed. However, Able died during an operation to remove an electrode from under her skin. Baker lived until 1984, dying of kidney failure at age 27.
Ham, a chimpanzee trained to perform tasks during spaceflight. Ham, named after the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, became a celebrity after his flight on Jan. 31, 1961. Ham learned to pull levers to receive banana pellets and avoid electric shocks. He successfully became the first animal to actually interact with a space vessel rather than simply ride in it.
On Oct. 18, 1963, French scientists launched the first cat into space. Felix was successfully retrieved after a parachute descent.
Two Russian dogs, Veterok and Ugolyok were launched into space on Feb. 22, 1966. They orbited for a record-breaking 22 days. Humans did not surpass the record until 1974.
Animals in other space research
Although the early animal astronauts achieved great fame, many other animals have quietly contributed to the body of scientific knowledge about life in space. As humans have grown more accustomed to space travel, fewer animals make the front-page news. Still, their contribution are important.
Some animals have been sent up as part of experiments designed by students, others by NASA and other countries. By 2004, the space shuttle program had flown over two dozen SpaceLab experimental packages. Nearly all of the experiments were designed with one main purpose in mind: to study the effects of microgravity on the biological functions of earth creatures.
Some of the biological functions that have been studied are (to name just a few): brain states, behavioral performance, cardiovascular status, fluid and electrolyte balance, metabolic state, tissue development, and mating in zero gravity.
Here are some examples of specific experiments:
Nov. 9, 1970: Two bullfrogs were launched on a one-way mission to learn more about space motion sickness. Some water bears eat microscopic animals, while others consume algae.
CREDIT: Daiki Horikawa, NASA Ames
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July 28, 1973: Two garden spiders named Arabella and Anita were used to study how orbiting earth would impact spiders’ ability to spin webs. Arabella spun a fairly symmetric web even though the thread thickness varied — something that earthbound spiders don’t experience.
July 10, 1985: Ten newts flew on board the Bion 7. Their front limbs were amputated in order to study regeneration in space to better understand how humans might recover from space injuries.
April 17, 1998: More than 2,000 creatures joined in 16 days of neurological testing alongside the seven-member human crew of the shuttle Columbia.
September 2007: Microscopic creatures commonly known as water bears (tardigrades) survived a 10-day exposure to open space. The creatures are known to have the ability to withstand extreme conditions, including dehydration, and still recover and reproduce. The animals were dried out and re-hydrated after surviving cosmic rays, a near vacuum, and freezing temperatures.
— Elizabeth Dohrer, SPACE.com Contributor