Orbiting animals

What 6 animals on the ISS teach us about life in space

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Even as people are pondering long-term human settlements on other worlds, there’s a lot we don’t know about how life away from Earth affects living things.

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To help make our next steps off the planet smoother, NASA and other space agencies have long used animals to test the effects of space.

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That may conjure images of lost space dogs, but modern regulations make experiments on animals in space these days more humane and more scientifically sound.

Here are 6 animals that have gone to the ISS in the name of science.

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1. Spiders

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The history of spiders in space goes back to 1973, when a Skylab experiment proposed by high schooler Judith Miles proved that they can spin webs without gravity.

A similar experiment in 2011 showed that orb spiders on the International Space Stationcan use light to orient themselves in the absence of gravity.

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2. Zebrafish

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The transparent skin of the zebrafish makes them interesting to scientists who want to study the inner workings of living animals.

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Zebrafish have been studied on the ISS to better understand the process of muscle atrophy in space, a medical condition that makes it more difficult for astronauts to readjust to life on solid ground.

3. Pavement ants

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NASA is drawn to ants not for their physiology, but for their ability to cooperate when searching for food.

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Scientists studied ants aboard the ISS to find out how the lack of gravity affected their searches. This can lead to new search algorithms for robots.

4. Mice

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Mice have long been popular scientific test subjects thanks to their biological similarities to humans. Even in space, they can’t escape the attention of scientists.

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Astronauts study mice in space to see how a lack of gravity affects mouse behavior and health. In both cases, mice seem to be remarkably adaptable.

One fun quirk of space mice: They developed a routine of running laps around their cages in groups, and scientists aren’t quite sure why.

5. Tardigrades

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Tardigrades (more adorably known as water bears) are some of the most resilient animals known to science. That makes them ideal for experiments in the harsh environment of space.

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NASA’s next planned tardigrade experiment will investigate their famed adaptability to help develop better ways for humans to combat the stresses of life in space.

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The tiny bobtail squid have a symbiotic relationship with a type of bioluminescent bacteria, which makes them useful subjects to study beneficial animal-microbe relationships.

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NASA is using them to study how gravity affects the animal-microbe relationship, which could lead to better human health in space and on Earth.

Read more stories on space here.

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