NASA sends mice to space station to study space travel health risks

"We can have an ongoing and consistent rodent research presence on the station," said project leader said Janet Beegle.
By Brooks Hays  |  Aug. 15, 2017 at 9:47 AM
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Aug. 15 (UPI) -- With Monday's SpaceX launch a success, a group of mice are en route to the International Space Station. The rodents are being sent to ISS as part of an ongoing effort by NASA to study the impacts of longterm space travel on human health.

Mice are biological similar to humans, yet relatively simple, physiologically speaking, which is why they an ideal model for human health studies.

"Space biology scientists have observed accelerated changes in mouse physiology in the space environment that are characteristic of some human diseases, such as osteoporosis and aging," Kevin Sato, lead scientist on the rodent mission, said in a news release. "Similar changes have been observed in astronauts, so the space environment allows scientists to study physiological changes in the astronauts using the mice as a model."

A team of scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in California designed a trio of transport and habitat modules in which the mice can travel and live.

"This kind of in-depth research is possible because of the unique hardware Ames has been able to provide for rodent research," said Janet Beegle, who heads the rodent research project. "By transitioning from a payload system -- where a researcher's team would start from scratch each time we send up an experiment -- to a permanent hardware facility provided by NASA, we can have an ongoing and consistent rodent research presence on the station."

The latest experiment, Rodent Research-9, will involve the monitoring of microgravity on blood vessels, eyes and joints.

In two of the three modules, the mice will be examined for changes to the blood vessels in their eyes and brains. Previous microgravity experiments involving human astronauts suggest bodily fluids concentrate in the lower half of the body after several months spent in space.

Mice in the third module will be examined for joint cartilage loss. Previous studies suggest prolonged weightlessness can lead to the deterioration of hip and knee joints.

The mice -- currently packed into the Dragon cargo capsule -- are expected to arrive at the space station on Wednesday morning. After being unloaded, the rodents will live aboard ISS for 30 days. In a month, they'll depart for Earth. Once returned, they'll be delivered to various academic research labs for analysis.

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