36,000 Worms Will Launch Into Space for an Experiment on Muscle Mass

Tomorrow, Dec 4, 36,000 worms will launch into space. If all goes according to plan, 2 to 3 million worms will come back to Earth.

The worms which will be sent into space in pouches of 5,000, will reproduce on the International Space Station as part of a study on how muscles are affected by spaceflight.

They’ll be hitching a ride with SpaceX’s next cargo launch to the station. CRS-16, lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station tomorrow at 1:38 p.m. EST (1838 GMT). The spacecraft will also contain tree-seeking lasers, a liquid-methane fueling station, and ingredients for “perfect crystals” among other things.

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, riding on a Falcon 9 rocket, will hold over 5,600 lbs. (2,500 kilograms) of instruments, supplies, and equipment for the space station crew, such as over 2,200 lbs. (1,000 kg) of science investigations. The launch will be streaming live on Space.com, thanks to NASA TV.

The millimetre-long variety of worms known as C. elegans will help scientists who are trying to learn how to mitigate the loss of muscle mass due to living in microgravity. Some of the worms will have changes made to the genes scientists believe might affect muscle mass, while other worms will be exposed to drugs that can affect the molecular causes of muscle mass loss.

At a news conference held on Wednesday Nov. 28, Timothy Etheridge, a researcher at the University of Exeter in the U.K. and principal investigator for the “Worms in Space” mission explained that in this study, for the first time, instead of just observing the changes, the scientists are going to target them with interventions and see whether they can prevent them from happening, and if preventing it makes muscle healthier in space.

Etheridge added that although they’re just a 1-mm-long worm, they’re a great model for studying human changes because the experts can target them and intervene in many different ways, even at a genetic level, and they’re about 80 percent similar to human beings.

Moreover, Etheridge stated that for this experiment, in particular, their muscles are both structurally and functionally very similar to humans, so when it comes to understanding muscle changes, worms are an excellent model.

In an email to Space.com Etheridge wrote that once they arrive, the worms will be placed in an incubator to live for about six days so they can have babies and grow on board the space station and it is likely they will bring the total to 2 million to 3 million worms. After that, the worms will be frozen and sent back to Earth on a departing cargo ship to be evaluated. (Worms can survive being frozen and some will likely be revived for further examination.)

If these interventions prove to be effective, it could pave the way to protecting astronauts on long-distance and long-duration journeys.

For those trips to be possible, astronauts might have to eventually harvest fuel from the surface of the moon or Mars, most probably in the form of cryogenic fluids such as hydrogen, oxygen, or methane with a very low boiling point. A new robotic refuelling mission travelling in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk, known as Robotic Refueling Mission-3, will practice transferring and storing liquid methane in space for the first time.

During the news conference, Hsiao Smith, deputy director of the Satellite Servicing Projects Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explained that if you’re driving across the country, you’re not going to make it on just one tank of gas. Similarly, spacecraft today are limited to the fuel they can hold. Thus, to advance space exploration, refuelling spacecraft is a requirement.

After the Dragon spacecraft arrives at the space station and is docked to its side, the station’s 11-foot robotic arm will unload the module and use three tools to connect a tank full of liquid methane to an empty tank and transfer 42 litres of fluid while monitoring the process. Then the new tank will store the methane for six months without any material boiling off.

Hsiao added that the robotic tools and vision system demonstrated by this refuelling mission could also be used for satellites in commerce, navigation, or science, which would have advantages for humans on Earth.

Furthermore, another experiment aboard the Dragon is the tree-surveying GEDI, which stands for Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation. It will blast three near-infrared lasers, each firing 242 times per second, to measure the heights and densities of Earth’s forests, charting its structure.

This initiative can assist researchers in estimating how much carbon is stored within Earth’s forests. Once the mission is completed, the spacecraft will have made approximately 10 billion measurements of forest canopy height — and by measuring how much of each burst bounces back or penetrates, and how long it takes to return, they can understand more about the composition of the forest canopy. The laser bursts can measure tree height to within 3 feet (1 meter).

Ralph Dubayah, a researcher at the Joint Global Carbon Cycle Center in Maryland and principal investigator on GEDI, said during the conference that aside from helping them learn more about carbon distribution, the observations will also let scientists know about Earth’s topography, and understanding the canopy structures can help researchers estimate how fires would spread through forests.

The majority of the mission’s cargo is using microgravity: One mission, dubbed the Perfect Crystals investigation, will aim to grow crystals from a protein that helps protect the human body from oxidizing radiation. Crystals grown in the space station’s freefall environment can be larger and more regular due to the fact there is no disruption from gravity. This allows scientists to gain insight into the proteins’ structure. Once the mission is concluded, the crystals will head to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for analysis with the lab’s special neutron beam.


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