As you can imagine, being up in outer space can get kind of lonely. Sure, your fellow crew members are there to keep you company, but, depending on the length of the mission, you need interaction with other types of people as well. Well, the ISS astronauts have recently been able to interact with another group of astronauts…and they have four legs and whiskers.
Although you may have assumed that we were referring to our favorite animal around here, cats, we’re actually talking about mice! Yes, that’s correct, mice (or mousetronauts as we like to call them) joined the crew of ISS astronauts last month. Sure, this sounds like a joke, but the experiment is actually backed by NASA and has an official name, Rodent Research-3.
The purpose of Rodent Research-3 is to test ways of preventing bone and muscle loss in space. Experiments such as these are vital if we have any hope of ever getting to Mars, which is a tremendously long journey that would wreak havoc on the human body. If the astronauts that eventually do embark on the first mission to Mars are in such bad shape physically when they arrive, not much beneficial research could be done anyway.
This group of mousetronauts are not the first rodents to travel into space. Since mice are such good candidates to perform experiments on, they have been used before for research purposes aboard space vessels. This latest trip should prove to be even more valuable, however, because the mice will actually be housed on the ISS with the ISS astronauts. This more permanent place for them will allow for much more research to be conducted.
Mice are so often used in experiments with results that could help humans because we are very similar to these rodents biologically. Also, sadly, mice only have an average lifespan of two years. On a positive note, this means that we can see results of experiments over their entire lifetime in a much shorter span of time. Being able to see how the animals react to living in space for a long period of time should really help the future health of human astronauts.
Half of the mice in space will be injected with a myostatin inhibitor, which is thought to slow muscle generation. The other half will be left alone to serve as a control group. For the sake of comparison, a group of mice on Earth will go through the same experiment. The mousetronauts can live in space for 30-90 days, after which they will be returned to Earth and dissected for further analysis. As with a lot of research that NASA conducts, we will see the benefits of this research here on Earth. As scientists test drugs on the mice and ISS astronauts benefit from treatment up in space, humans on Earth with muscle problems can receive those same treatments and medicines.