This Week in Space


Welcome to the’s new weekly space focused science column! We hope you will find it enjoyable as well as informative.


This month NASA is highlighting bioreseach on the International Space Station(ISS). Animals such as rodents, fish, insects and worms are among the creatures being studied, along with plants in order find ways to ensure astronauts remain healthy whilst in space. The species chosen are those well understood by scientists and have a fully sequenced genome. They also grow fast, breed quickly and have short lifetimes so are easier to study. They are also inexpensive, which is useful.

Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) are very handy as genetically speaking, people and fruit flies are surprisingly alike, explains biologist Sharmila Bhattacharya of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “About 77% of known human disease genes have a recognizable match in the genetic code of fruit flies, and 50% of fly protein sequences have mammalian analogues. We are sending fruit flies to the International Space Station. They will orbit Earth alongside astronauts, helping us explore the effects of long-term space flight on human beings.”

They will be studied to see how they cope with microgravity, radiation and in particular the effects of space on their immune systems as it has long been known that astronauts resistence to disease is compromised.

Roundworms too are a favourite amongst scientists, particularly the millimeter long roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans), as they are studied for clues about bone and muscle loss in humans living in space.

“Spaceflight-induced health changes, such as decreases in muscle and bone mass, are a major challenge facing our astronauts,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s Chief Scientist for the International Space Station Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We investigate solutions on the station not only to keep astronauts healthy as the agency considers longer space exploration missions, but also to help those on Earth who have limited activity as a result of aging or illness.”

“The astronauts will cultivate multiple generations of the organism, so we can examine the organisms in different states of development,” said Atsushi Higashitani, principal investigator for both investigations with Tohoku University in Miyagi, Japan. “Our studies will help clarify how and why these changes to health take place in microgravity and determine if the adaptations to space are transmitted from one cell generation to another without changing the basic DNA of an organism. Then, we can investigate if those effects could be treated with different medicines or therapies.”

Image Credit: NASA

There are fish too in space, Medaka (Oryzias latipes), also with the the view of looking into changes in bone density. Fish on Earth may appear weightless, but the still respond to gravity. These are transparent too, which makes it easier to see what is going on. Rodents too, play their part in modelling what happens to humans in space.

There are of course other nations doing this sort of research, with the Russians having sent the first geckos into space in order to see how being in space affected their sex lives. Their first mission failed about a year ago, when a malfunction led to their deaths, but did result in the most screamingly funny headline I have seen in a long, long time: ‘Satellite full of sexually experimental geckos adrift in space, Russia loses control of mission‘. We hope that at the very least they died doing what they loved most.

Another mission has since been launched which shows that the lizards are not entirely serious creatures and in fact have a playful side to their natures when one of them lost its collar and was used as a plaything by the other geckos. We trust they are still safe.



The mission team is gearing up to the next phase in obtaining its data via downlink which started on Saturday 5th September. This will take about a year to complete. This should not be surprising as each signal it sends takes 4 1/2 hours to reach us.

“This is what we came for—these images, spectra and other data types that are going to help us understand the origin and the evolution of the Pluto system for the first time,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “And what’s coming is not just the remaining 95 percent of the data that’s still aboard the spacecraft— it’s the best datasets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more. It’s a treasure trove. ”

“The New Horizons mission has required patience for many years, but from the small amount of data we saw around the Pluto flyby, we know the results to come will be well worth the wait,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Each week on a Friday, the team plans on releasing images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), starting Friday September 11th.


The Orion module to house crew members for a long trip to Mars is beginning to come together with the welding together of the first two of seven carefully designed pieces. The assembly team has worked closely with the design team to reduce the number of welds to just seven major welds and a few smaller welds. The advantage of this is to reduce the weight of the finished spacecraft.

“Every day, teams around the country are moving at full speed to get ready for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), when we’ll flight test Orion and SLS together in the proving ground of space, far away from the safety of Earth,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’re progressing toward eventually sending astronauts deep into space.”

Image Credit:NASA

“Each of Orion’s systems and subsystems is assembled or integrated onto the primary structure, so starting to weld the underlying elements together is a critical first manufacturing step,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. “The team has done tremendous work to get to this point and to ensure we have a sound building block for the rest of Orion’s systems.”

There is of course much still to be done, but it really gives you the feeling that ‘things are happening’. We will of course keep you informed.

See you next week space fans!

This article originally appeared on, written by Feiryred.

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