The 5,000 tardigrades and 128 glow-in-the-dark squidlets will rocket to their destination aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is scheduled to take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 3 at 1:29 p.m. Eastern Time.
It might seem a bit odd to catapult these tiny critters into the great unknown but studying them could help scientists understand the impacts of space travel on the human body, reports Passant Rabie for Inverse.
Tardigrades are less than a tenth of an inch long, and, despite looking like gummy bears, they are famous for being almost indestructible. They can survive blasts of radiation, intense pressure and even the cold, airless vacuum of space, reports Ben Turner for Live Science. The hope is that researchers aboard the ISS may be able to identify genetic changes occurring in the tardigrades as they hurtle through space that have something to do with how these minute creatures adapt to their new environment.
“Spaceflight can be a really challenging environment for organisms, including humans, who have evolved to the conditions on Earth,” says Thomas Boothby, a molecular biologist at the University of Wyoming and the lead scientist on the ISS experiment, in a statement. “One of the things we are really keen to do is understand how tardigrades are surviving and reproducing in these environments and whether we can learn anything about the tricks that they are using and adapt them to safeguard astronauts.”
In a press statement quoted by Inverse, Boothby says if they observe the tardigrades producing lots of antioxidants “that might give us insights into how we could safeguard humans, for example, by supplementing their diet with foods with increased levels of antioxidants.”
But what about the baby squid? The newborn cephalopods are being sent to space with a different experiment in mind, one that takes advantage of a special feature of bobtail squid: they glow. The squid’s eerie blue lights are facilitated by a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that colonize the tentacled creature’s light organs.
“Animals, including humans, rely on our microbes to maintain a healthy digestive and immune system,” says Jamie Foster, a microbiologist at the University of Florida who is running the the Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions (UMAMI) experiment, in the statement. “We do not fully understand how spaceflight alters these beneficial interactions. The UMAMI experiment uses a glow-in-the-dark bobtail squid to address these important issues in animal health.”
The goal of the experiment is to see how spaceflight impacts the squid’s symbiosis with these microbes and to use that as a window into how being outside Earth’s atmosphere might impact the microbes in the human gut, for instance, that are crucial to good health.
The bobtails aren’t born with their bacterial symbionts, so when the squid get to the ISS researchers will provide the bioluminescent bacteria and see if everything proceeds normally from there, per Live Science.
Sadly, for the tardigrades and the baby squid, the little animals won’t be making the return trip alive, according to Inverse. Once the experiments are complete, the creatures will be frozen solid so they can be studied back on Earth.