NASA-funded Research Team Sends Mice to Space
Space, the final frontier. Every advancement in rockets, clue of water on Mars, and alien abduction story seems to bring humanity closer to living beyond Earth’s orbit. Now, NASA hopes to understand one of the most concerning factors of long-term space travel: outer-orbit stresses on the body. After observations made on the Kelly twins, SpaceX and NASA are now sending the tinies astronauts, mice, to the International Space Station.
The First Twins
Early this year, researchers from Northwestern performed a study on identical twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. While Mark Kelly stayed on Earth as the most comparable control subject, Scott Kelly spent a year in space. The study demonstrated that the stress of space travel and space living have a discernible impact on the human body. Results from the study demonstrated changes in the body down to the genetic material. Researchers compared the brothers before, during, and after the space excursion. Through this study, scientists aimed to determine the impact of stress and adaptation on the body.
RR-7: Mice in Space
In collaboration with NASA, Northwestern University scientists are now expanding on the Kelly brothers study (the University is the alma mater of SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, a deep space travel enthusiast herself). Researchers hope to determine actions for astronauts and future humans to take to divert the symptoms and side effects of stress. Findings from the study aim to make space travel (and interplanetary living) more tolerable and sustainable for future humans. Neurobiologists Fred Turek and Martha Vitaterna, and their team, sent 20 mice to space on June 29. The team left 20 mouse siblings here on Earth for comparison in the project, labeled as Rodent Research-7 or RR-7.
The mice were sent to the ISS aboard the SpaceX Dragon in late June, and arrived on July 2. The mice were sent as part of a capsule shipment boasting ice cream, caffeine, and a human-faced AI robot. The journey for some of these mice is particularly groundbreaking. Scientists plan to leave 10 of the 20 space-bound mice at the International Space Station for 90 days, the longest mice have ever been in orbit. The other ten mice stayed at the ISS for only 30 days. This first set of mice returned to Earth just before the start of August.
What can we study about stress?
Mice, like humans and most other mammals, can demonstrate signs of environmental fatigue and the impact of stress. We manifest stress through microbial (gut) health changes, variations in sleep cycle & circadian rhythms, body strength and mass (weight loss or weight gain), and other factors. Researchers on Earth and in space will be monitoring stool samples, body mass, bone density, and general behavior and health for the assigned periods. The 20-mouse control group on Earth will be further split into two groups. One group will live in traditional Earth-like conditions and the other will live in conditions mimicking the ISS. Researchers will control this environment for lighting, pressure changes, and gaseous makeup.
The decision to research the impact of stress on mice is twofold. First, mice feel the impacts of space travel much quicker than humans. For some perspective, RR-7’s record 90-day trip equates to around nine human years. This allows the experiment to condense the period of time needed to perform research and determine impact. Second, the study performed on the Kelly brothers was finite. There were only two human subjects, leaving room for natural changes in Mark or Scott’s body to perhaps be anomalous. Because Scott was living on Earth in a non-controlled environment, he did not serve as a stable control subject. According to Vitaterna, by studying litters of mice in similar conditions, the study will have greater statistical power. This larger subject set will help researchers draw conclusions and – ideally – make advancements in our understanding of space stress.
What can we gain from stress research in space?
The impact of Northwestern’s research will heavily influence the (sometimes health-adverse) experience of astronauts. Obviously, the more comfortably humans can travel to and from space, the more confidently we can foray into longer and more robust space travel programs. Above all, researchers hope to decrease periods of adjustment, adaptation, or illness following this type of travel to make space travel sustainable. This study is part of the larger effort to determine if – and how – humans might one day live in space. It goes without saying that if there is a future where we’re able to realistically and healthily inhabit space long-term, it begins with these mice.
Space travel can potentially disrupt the circadian system, the metabolic processes, the microbiome of our bodies, and several other key systems. Likewise, prolonged space visits decrease human bone strength and muscle endurance over time. A trip to Mars and back could already take years – plural – to traverse. Currently, NASA isn’t equipped to make those missions a reality. We must first know what long-term impact our astronauts may incur – and how we can combat that impact. It is the underpinning of this particular study that the key to adapting to the stressors of space life lies in the maintenance of balance in our fundamental body systems. If we can regulate things like microbial health, metabolic stability, and sleep cycles, we may be able to overcome the magnanimity of extended time in space.
Findings from RR-7
We await final data and findings from the rodent research project. While the first half of the space mice will have returned home before August kicked off, the 90-day residents will not return to Earth, completing the experimental rotation, until early October. Upon return, scientists will dissect the subjects in order for researchers to take in a full anecdotal review of impact on their organs following the duration in space. We can expect the final study findings will be published in late 2018 or early 2019.