September 7 – Pigs in space

Today’s factismal: The first US satellite to carry biology experiments into space and back was launched 47 years ago today.

One of the more bizarre parts of space exploration has always been finding out how space travel would change critters. Would they grow as they normally did? Would they develop special powers and go on to be the world’s greatest superhero team? Or would they change in small but interesting ways? And, as is always the case in science, the only way to find out was to do the experiment. And experiment we did.

The first spiderweb spun in space (Image courtesy NASA)

The first spiderweb spun in space
(Image courtesy NASA)

We sent fruit flies, mice, rats, cats, dogs, guinea pigs, rhesus monkeys, frogs, and chimps into space, but all to test the life support systems to see if it was safe to send humans up. (Imagine if we tested pools that way…) After that question was answered, we started sending worms, spiders, fish, tortoises, yet more monkeys, fruit flies, brine shrimp, politicians, bacteria (but I repeat myself), silkworms, bees, ants, waterbears, and butterflies to see how their development changed once they’d been in space. You may have noticed a pattern to the critters that get sent; since the very beginning, we’ve preferred to send short-lived things because that allows us to have more generations of the critter exposed to space so that any changes will be more obvious.

A rhesus monkey grows to gigantic size after being exposed to space (not) (Image courtesy NASA)

A rhesus monkey grows to gigantic size after being exposed to space (not)
(Image courtesy NASA)

And we haven’t only sent animals; we’ve also sent plants. One of the longest running plants in space experiments also happens to be a citizen science experiment. Known as Tomatosphere, for the past eleven years it has involved sending tomato seeds up to the International Space Stations where they are exposed to outer space for nearly two years before being brought back down to Earth where they are sent out to school children to grow and measure. The results of this experiment will help us to understand how we can survive in space (and if tomatoes are just as tasty in zero gee). To take part, head over to:
http://www.tomatosphere.org/

(Those objecting to the experiment are advised to read this.)

One thought on “September 7 – Pigs in space

  1. Pingback: March 15 – Per Aspera Ad Artibus | Little facts about science

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