Astronauts on the International Space Station are about to receive a special delivery.
SpaceX launched its 22nd cargo refueling mission to the space station Thursday at 1:29 p.m. ET. The spacecraft carries over 7,300 pounds of supplies, scientific research experiments and technological demonstrations. The vehicle will dock at the space station on Saturday.
Along the ride are 5,000 tardigrades, also known as water bears, and 128 baby phosphorescent bobtail squids.
Both will participate in experiments on the space station, including evaluating how water bears tolerate the space environment. Researchers also want to know if the lack of gravity affects the symbiotic relationship between squid and beneficial microbes.
Other experiences at the station include portable ultrasound, remote use of robotic arms using virtual reality, analysis of kidney stone formation in space, study the oral microbiome (it’s in your mouth) and produce cotton that’s more resistant to stress. More than a dozen orbit experiments belong to research students.
Hundreds of science experiments are underway on the space station every day; it is an orbiting laboratory, after all. Astronauts oversee these experiments and report their observations to scientists on Earth. Research helps us better understand life in zero gravity, as well as discover the benefits that can be applied on Earth.
Astronauts also receive fresh fruits and vegetables in their cargo, including Gala apples, navel oranges, cherry tomatoes, onions, lemons, baby peppers, and avocados.
The cargo vehicle is even loaded with new solar panels, which will increase the amount of energy available on board the space station. Compact panels were used to make the ISS Roll-out Solar Array, or iROSA, which unrolls like a long carpet. The network will be installed outside the space station by astronauts during two spacewalks in June.
Water bear and celestial umami
Under a microscope, tiny tardigrades look like bears. They are commonly found in water – and sometimes, serving as nemesis in ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp‘- but tardigrades are known for their ability to survive and even thrive in the most extreme environments.
“Tardigrades are a group of microscopic animals known for their ability to survive a number of extreme stresses,” said Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of Wyoming and principal investigator of the Cell Science experiment. -04 tardigrade, in a press conference last week.
“Some of the things that tardigrades can survive include drying out, freezing and warming beyond the boiling point of water. They can survive thousands of times more radiation than we can and they can survive for days or weeks with little or no oxygen.
In fact, tardigrades can tolerate these extremes better than most life forms, and what could be more extreme than space? This is not the first time that tardigrades have gone to space – and there maybe even some of them on the moon, after a mission carrying them crashed onto its surface.
“They have been shown to survive and reproduce during spaceflight, and can even survive prolonged exposure to the vacuum of space,” Boothby said.
Boothby’s experiment is designed to see how tardigrades adapt to life in low Earth orbit, which could lead to a better understanding of the stressors humans face in space.
“Ultimately, this information will give us insight into how one of Earth’s most resilient organisms is able to survive the rigors of spaceflight,” he said. “And our hope is that this information will provide avenues for developing countermeasures or therapies that will help protect astronauts on extended space missions.”
The UMAMI experiment stands for Understanding Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions, and Jamie Foster, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Cellular Science at the University of Florida, is its principal investigator. She is eager to see how beneficial healthy microbes communicate with animal tissue in space.
“Animals, including humans, depend on our microbes to maintain a healthy digestive and immune system,” Foster said. “We don’t fully understand how spaceflight changes these beneficial interactions. The UMAMI experiment uses a phosphorescent bobtail squid to solve these important animal health issues.
The Bobtail squid, which is only about 3 millimeters (0.12 inches) long, is the perfect model to study it for two reasons. These squids have a special luminous organ inside the body that can be colonized by a species of luminescent bacteria. The squid can then use this bacteria to glow in the dark. This symbiotic relationship exists between a single species of bacteria and a type of host tissue, so it’s easy for researchers to keep track of this process, Foster said.
Squids also have an immune system very similar to that of humans. Researchers will be able to find out whether spaceflight changes the mutually beneficial relationship between animals and their microbes.
“As astronauts explore space, they take with them a company of different microbial species,” Foster said. “And it’s really important to understand how these microbes, collectively called the microbiome, change in the space environment and how these relationships are established.”