Over the last few days a peculiar drama has played out in the sky above our heads. It's been hard to miss—headlines like "Russia loses control of gecko sex experiment satellite" are compelling, to say the least—but there is a scientific reason for sending one male and four female lizards up into orbit with nothing to do but eat and have sex.
The satellite—Photon-M4—launched on 19 July from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kasakhstan, which was the USSR's primary launch location for its space missions and continues to be Russia's key spaceport. It made a few orbits of the Earth before those on the ground lost communication with it, and it began to orbit uncontrollably. To avoid falling back through the atmosphere it needed to begin moving up into a higher orbit, but while ground crews could receive data from it, it was ignoring commands.
For a while, it looked like it might have been curtains for the satellite's passengers: fruit flies, plants, seeds, microbe cultures and the infamous geckos. They'd still have access to food, water and light, but without human control, the satellite might spiral down to Earth prematurely, killing all on board. The geckos (which in this case are Phelsuma ornata, the Mauritius ornate day gecko) were meant to make it home alive after a two month journey.
Thankfully, over the weekend the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced that it had managed to take control of Photon-M4 again, getting things back on track. In this context, that means watching every move the geckos made with video cameras set up all around their habitat—the objective of the mission being to "create the conditions for sexual behavior, copulation and breeding geckos," and then, to study what happens to the fertilised eggs that the female geckos lay post-mating. Those eggs will be analysed when the satellite returns to Earth to see how, if anything, they differ to those of normal gecko eggs.
For terrestrial animals (be they human or lizard) space travel causes stresses that evolution never could have prepared us for. Physically, weightlessness requires learning entirely new ways to move, eat and sleep, or even wash one's hair or cry. Things that in an environment with even a reasonably fraction of Earth's gravity, like a small leak in a spacesuit, can become terrifying ordeals—as Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who last year nearly drowned while on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, discovered. The surface tension of water droplets made them cling to his face, his nose, his ears and his eyes, blocking his vision, sight and hearing.
In an environment where liquids behave in unexpected ways, gecko sex might give us clues as to what to expect if and when humans begin living in zero-G (or near-zero-G) environments for a long time. While the record for first humans to have sex in space is still unclaimed (as far as we know), something—weightlessness, radiation, the distribution of fluids throughout the body, something else—could impact the health of sperm, eggs or a developing embryo. Scientists from Russia's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems will be able to study all kinds of factors that might have influenced the gecko breeding process: metabolic changes in the geckos, structural changes within the eggs, skeletal changes (humans on the ISS lose bone density and muscle mass relatively quickly, even when working out regularly) or behavioural changes.
The other experiments on Photon-M4 similarly explore the effects of exposure to a zero-G, Earth orbit environment on different organisms. Some microbes will be analysed with flourescent light to see how their ability to divide changes during flight, while others (sourced from permafrost, so extremely hardy) will be placed on asteroid-like materials to see if they can also survive being exposed to space. Fungal spores will be observed to see how they grow during flight, while others will be watched to see how they decompose in zero-G.
Seeds and silkworm eggs will be bombarded with cosmic radiation to see what happens, and whether they then develop as normal. One of the discoveries that scientists can thank the ISS for is that it's possible to grow plants in orbit, and to complete full lifecycles from seed to plant and back to seed—but weird things can happen to the plants that are then grown from those space-born seeds. A cherry blossom tree seed came back to Earth from eight months aboard the ISS in 2009, and scientists were surprised that the sapling which grew from it sprouted flowers earlier in 2014—a full six years earlier than such trees normally develop flowers. Its petals were also different to a normal cherry blossom tree's. Something happened to it up in space, it seems, but research like that on Photon-M4 is needed to figure out exactly what.
When missions to Mars do get underway (and on current estimates we're probably 15 to 20 years from that moment), crews are likely to take plants with them to grow for food. They may even plant them on Mars, within glass domes or greenhouses constructed by the first settlers. There may even be small animals too—insects perhaps—and it's vital that we know what will happen not only to humans during the eight-month journey to the Red Planet but what will happen to their food sources. If seeds are rendered sterile by cosmic radiation, any settlement of Mars is likely to be a short one.
Each major space agency has spent time on experiments like the ones on Photon-M. Indeed, Roscosmos' Bion-M satellite, launched in late 2013, held very similar projects to Photon-M4—only instead of five geckos, there were 45 mice, 15 newts and eight gerbils. The plan was to observe them in orbit for 30 days, with data gathering focused on what might prove useful for keeping human astronauts healthy during any future Mars mission.
Distressingly, most of the animals died under the stress of either weightlessness or failure in the equipment that should have automatically fed them and kept them at a comfortable temperature. Institute of Medical and Biological Problems deputy director Vladimir Sychov memorably said: "Less than half of the mice made it—but that was to be expected. Unfortunately, because of equipment failure, we lost all the gerbils."
This piece originally appeared in the New Statesman.