NASA is getting ready to launch 5,000 tardigrades, also known as “water bears,” along with 128 glow-in-the-dark baby squid, into space.
The animals are heading to the International Space Station (ISS) next week as part of SpaceX’s 22nd cargo resupply mission.
SpaceX is set to launch the microscopic critters onboard a Falcon 9 rocket on June 3 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Tardigrades are tiny, at just 0.04 inches (1 millimeter) long. They get their popular nickname, the water bear, from their chubby, bear-like appearance when looked at under a microscope. Tardigrades are capable of surviving extreme radiation, pressures six times those found in the deepest parts of the ocean, and the total vacuum of space.
The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet was carrying thousands of dehydrated tardigrades onboard when it crashed into the moon during a failed landing attempt on April 11, 2019. If any life-form could survive the crash, perhaps these creatures would, especially since they were in their dehydrated “tun” state from which they could be resuscitated.
It’s these abilities that make the tardigrades such a useful research organism aboard the ISS. Astronauts hope to identify the specific genes responsible for the creatures’ ability to adapt to high stress environments. This will hopefully give us some insight into the health impacts of long-duration space travel.
“Some of the things that tardigrades can survive include being dried out, being frozen and being heated up past the boiling point of water. They can survive thousands of times as much radiation as we can and they can go for days or weeks with little or no oxygen,” Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of Wyoming and principal investigator for the experiment, said in a news briefing. “They’ve been shown to survive and reproduce during spaceflight, and can even survive prolonged exposure to the vacuum of outer space.”
For Boothby’s study, astronauts will examine the molecular biology of the water bears to look for signs of any immediate and long-term adaptations to life in low-Earth orbit — which subjects daring space travelers to the rigors of zero gravity and increased radiation exposure.
A separate and parallel experiment also set to be delivered by the resupply mission will bring baby bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) to the station. The 0.12-inch-long (3 mm) squid have a special light-producing organ inside their bodies where bioluminescent bacteria give the squid their glow. The researchers of this experiment hope to investigate this symbiotic relationship between bacteria and squid to see how beneficial microbes interact with animal tissue in space.
“Animals, including humans, rely on our microbes to maintain a healthy digestive and immune system,” Jamie Foster, a microbiologist at the University of Florida and principal investigator of the Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions (UMAMI) experiment, said in a statement. “We do not fully understand how spaceflight alters these beneficial interactions.”
The squid are born without the bacteria. They acquire them in the ocean throughout life, so the researchers are planning to add the bacteria to the squid as soon as the animals get thawed out at the ISS. This way, researchers can observe the squid as they establish symbiosis with the bacteria. By studying the molecules produced during the process, the researchers will be able to determine which genes the squid turned on and off to accomplish the feat in space. Knowing this could help humans better look after their gut and immune system microbiomes across long-distance space journeys.