Five geckos – four females and one male – were sent into orbit by Russia to study zero-G mating behavior.
It was revealed Monday that the geckos froze to death. The “sex geckos” piqued the interest of comedians and media, but their sacrifice was for real scientific research.
Ruth Globus, project scientist for the Animal Rodent Habitat of the International Space Station, said that while animal deaths in space are rare, the risk is well worth it. Sending animals into space allows scientists to run tests unethical to humans.
For example, research has shown that space is harmful to ovaries in mice.
“They degenerate. One would expect this to result in infertility in female mice. We can’t and don’t study that in humans,” Globus said.
Knowing how organs degenerate in space might shed light on how diseases do the same back on Earth. The embryos produced through breeding are especially useful. They grow quickly and accumulate long-term effects in a short amount of time.
“How molecules respond to the unique challenges of space flights has a lot of similarity to challenges on Earth,” Globus said.
Over the long haul, space-based animal research helps scientists understand how humans might fare on long-term space missions, such as a trip to Mars. For now, this research benefits astronauts who are subjected to months of radiation and weightlessness.
But making space babies isn’t easy. While the United States breeds fish and insects on the International Space Station, Globus said it’s never been done in mammals. All her mice are female.
As for the geckos – they’re all Russian.
“We don’t have any immediate plans to fly geckos to the station at NASA,” Globus said.
The Russian space agency has vowed to investigate the gecko deaths. A colony of fruit flies also on board the satellite survived.
Gavin Stern is a national content producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @GavinStern or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.