A new experiment aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is studying tardigrades, tiny creatures also known as water bears for their appearance under a microscope. Tardigrades can tolerate the hottest and coldest environments on Earth, and can survive decades without water. The new experiment – called Cell Science-04 – aims to identify the genes involved in water bears’ abiliy to survive and adapt to high-stress environments, including the one astronauts experience in space. NASA said scientists hope the findings can help guide research into protecting humans from the stresses of long-duration space travel.
The tardigrades arrived at the ISS on June 5, 2021 via the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft. But the Cell Science-04 water bears aren’t the first tardigrades to visit space. In 2007, a European research team sent 3,000 living tardigrades into Earth’s orbit for 12 days on the outside of a FOTON-M3 rocket (68% of them survived.). This time, the water bears will be living onboard, inside special science hardware that lets scientists carry out long-term studies of cultures of cells, tissues, and microscopic animals in space by allowing real-time, remote monitoring, and control over the tardigrades’ living conditions.
Microscopic water bears to help protect astronaut health