A Russian-built Soyuz 2 space rocket took off Friday at 6 a.m. EDT (1000 GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with a menagerie of live animals on board for a month-long experiment designed to learn how the creatures respond to space travel. The group of animal cosmonauts include eight gerbils, 15 geckos, and 45 mice, along with some fish, snails and a variety of microorganisms.
The rocket is carrying the Bion-M1 space capsule, which will be home to the pioneering crew of animals as they spend a month in a 357-mile high orbit above Earth, according to scientists. The Russian Federal Space Agency, called Roscosmos, is running the project in collaboration with NASA and an international team of scientists, who will help oversee the variety of experiments scheduled to take place aboard the spacecraft.
Although animals have been launched into space for experimental purposes for more than 60 years, the current mission is considerably longer than previous ones. The last Bion mission, which carried rhesus monkeys, some geckos, and amphibians into orbit, took place in 1996 and lasted only 15 days.
According to Nicole Rayl, project manager for NASA’s part of the mission, the purpose of the Bion-M1 undertaking is to help scientists better understand how astronauts might be affected by long-duration space flights.
“The unique nature of this mission is that it’s a 30-day mission, so it’s longer than a lot of the other animal and biological missions we’ve flown,” Rayl told Space.com. “The big importance for us is that we get to compare data from this longer mission with better analytical tools that we have today, [compared] to the missions we’ve flown in the past that were similar but not exactly the same.”
Scientists on the ground will collect and monitor data about the animals’ health and conditions within the space capsule. For instance, one of the NASA experiments will look at how sperm motility in mice is affected by radiation and microgravity in order to get an idea of whether or not human beings will be able to procreate in space. Since some future missions–to other planets, for example–could literally take decades to complete, sex in space might be necessary in order to continue the human race. Other experiments will examine how various physiological systems cope with and are changed by the rigors of space flight.
After spending a month in orbit, the Bion-M1 spacecraft will plunge to Earth, allowing researchers to retrieve the animals and run tests on them. Although the creatures will probably survive their descent through the Earth’s atmosphere, said Rayl, scientists must euthanize the miniature cosmonauts in order to get the data they need.