Gizmag has the story on the latest NASA-built homes for space rats.
Attention space rats and astromice, NASA is sending new, posher rodent habitats to the International Space Station (ISS). The high-tech cages will first will fly in August aboard an unmanned SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and are part of an extensive study on the effects of weightlessness on prolonged space voyages.
Rodents have been part of the US space program since the first mice flew in a V-2 rocket in 1950. Though the chimps and monkeys may have taken the spotlight, mice and rats have played a vital role in space medicine with no less than 27 batches of rodents flying on the Space Shuttle from 1983 to 2011. However, the new round of rodent studies on the ISS mean that there’s a need for something more sophisticated than a shoebox to carry the animals around in.
Developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, the new habitats are designed for transporting the animals to the space station and as part of their long-term accommodation. They consist of a transport module, which fits inside the racks in the pressurized cargo section of the Dragon spacecraft, and an access module for moving the rodents from the transporter to the station’s rodent habitat without having the mice escape and take up residence behind the control panels. The access modules also allow the crew to remove than animals from the habitat for observation.
The habitat modules hold 10 mice or 6 rats and are designed to provide them with water, food, lighting and fresh air. Since rats and mice aren’t made for flight, the habitat is also equipped with rods for them to grasp as they move about. The habitats are also bugged with data links and a visual/infrared video system, so scientists can keep a constant eye on their charges.
Based on recommendations of the National Research Council, the new modules are part of a study of the effects of prolonged weightlessness, such as would be encountered on a mission to Mars. The six-month tours of duty that astronauts spend on the ISS have revealed a number of problems with living in zero-G, including loss of muscle mass, weakening of bones, as well as affecting the cardiovascular endocrine, nervous, reproductive, and immune systems. A two-year Mars mission could have severe, or perhaps fatal effects – especially when space radiation is included. The research is aimed at understanding these effects at the genetic and molecular level in hopes of finding ways to combat them. NASA also says that some of these conditions resemble some earthbound diseases and could help in their treatment.
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