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Monday, June 21, 2021

Explained: Why is NASA sending water bears, baby squid to the International Space Station?

The water bears and bobtail squid will be involved in experiments aboard the floating laboratory. They will arrive in a semi-frozen state, before being thawed out, revived and grown in a special bioculture system.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 8, 2021 9:55:05 am
Explained: Why NASA is sending water bears and baby squid to the International Space StationThese glow-in-the-dark baby squids are going to space. (Image: NASA)

On June 3, NASA will send 128 glow-in-the-dark baby squids and some 5,000 tardigrades (also called water bears) to the International Space Station for research purposes.

The water animals, which will be launched aboard SpaceX’s 22nd cargo resupply mission to the ISS, are part of experiments that could help scientists design improved protective measures for astronauts going on long-duration space travel. The experiments are also aimed at better understanding how beneficial microbes interact with animals, potentially leading to breakthroughs in improving human health on Earth.

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Research aboard the International Space Station

A space station is essentially a large spacecraft that remains in low-earth orbit for extended periods of time. It is like a large laboratory in space, and allows astronauts to come aboard and stay for weeks or months to carry out experiments in microgravity.

The ISS has been in space since 1998, and has been known for the exemplary cooperation between the five participating space agencies that run it: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).

For over 20 years since its launch, humans have continuously lived and carried out scientific investigations on the $150 billion ISS under microgravity conditions, being able to make breakthroughs in research not possible on Earth.

As per NASA, the floating laboratory has hosted more than 3,000 research and educational investigations from researchers in 108 countries and areas, carrying out cutting edge research in various disciplines, including biology, human physiology, and physical, material and space science.

So, why are the sea animals needed at the ISS?

The water bears and bobtail squid will be involved in experiments aboard the floating laboratory, and will be arriving in a semi-frozen state before they are thawed out, revived and grown in a special bioculture system, according to CNN.

One of these studies involves looking at how the water bears– tiny animals (around 1mm long) that can adapt to extreme conditions on Earth, including high pressure, temperature and radiation– would behave in a spaceflight environment. Researchers will be able to study their hardiness close up, and possibly identify the genes that allow them to become so resilient.

By learning how the water bears can survive in low gravity conditions, it would be possible to design better techniques to keep astronauts healthy on long-duration space missions.

Scientists also want to look at how microgravity conditions affect the relationship between the bobtail squid –which are also tiny (3 mm long)– and beneficial microbes, as part of a study called UMAMI, short for Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions.

Microbes play a crucial role in the normal development of animal tissues and in maintaining human health, and the research will allow scientists to have a better understanding of how beneficial microbes interact with animals when there is a lack of gravity.

In the human body, microorganisms contribute to a variety of functions, including digestion, developing the immune system and detoxifying harmful chemicals. A disruption in our relationship with these microbes can lead to disease.

As per NASA, this research may lead to important breakthroughs. On Earth, we may be able to find ways to protect and even enhance the complex relationship between animals and beneficial microbes, ensuring better human health and well being. In space, the findings will help space agencies develop better measures to protect astronauts from adverse host-microbe alterations on long-duration missions.

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