Japanese Space Agency Puts Fish On The International Space Station
July 31, 2012

Japan Space Agency Puts Fish On The International Space Station

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

It all started in the 1940s when the US sent the first living organisms into space: fruit flies. Since then, everything from mice to cats to dogs to monkeys have gone into space. Even fish have been introduced to the effects of space in the 1970s.

And now, the Japanese Space Agency is taking the next big leap by putting fish on the International Space Station (ISS), where they will live in the Aquatic Habitat (AQH), which arrived at the orbiting lab on July 27 via the unmanned Japanese cargo ship Kounotiri3 (HTV3).

The fish will remain onboard the ISS for 90 days, allowing researchers to examine the impacts of radiation, bone degradation, muscle atrophy and developmental biology space has on the group of marine animals. Researchers hope the data gleaned from the project will improve understanding of human health back on Earth.

“We think studies on bone degradation mechanisms and muscle atrophy mechanisms are applicable to human health problems, especially for the ageing society,” said JAXA engineer Nobuyoshi Fujimoto.

Since these impacts can create genetic mutations in future generations, experts want to be able to observe both individual fish and their offspring. The AQH is designed to keep the sealed habitat clean and safe for long periods.

Fujimoto said their AQH design will “make it possible for egg-to-egg breeding aboard station” -- up to three generations of fish in the 90-day period.

The closed-system habitat will reside in the Japanese Experiment Module for the duration of the project, and will require little maintenance from crew aboard the ISS, the tank even feeds the fish automatically. It is designed to operate in zero-gravity and can also be used for amphibious habitat as well.

This is not the first time fish have been in space. Earlier shuttle missions -- STS-47, STS-65 and STS-90 -- carried fish into space. However this is the first time fish have been placed on the ISS, or any space station for that matter.

The AQH is made up of two chambers each measuring 5.9x2.8x2.8 inches and hold a little less than 24 ounces of water. The advanced life support system of the AQH not only circulates water, but constantly monitors conditions in the habitat. Waste is automatically removed, pressure levels and oxygen levels are maintained and temperature regulated.

“In order to keep water quality in good condition for the health of the fish, we had to do many tests on the filtration system, especially the bacteria filter,” said Fujimoto. “The special bacteria filter purifies waste materials, such as ammonia, so that we can keep fish for up to 90 days“¦ This would be a first for fish in space.”

Two video cameras in the unit allow the fish to be monitored from the Earth.

During the three-month project, scientists will examine the freshwater fish, starting with the Medaka (Oryzias latipes) fish. Medaka make ideal guinea pigs because they are transparent, which makes it easier to observe their inner organs and the impacts space has on them. Medaka fish are also quick breeders, allowing the studies to examine multiple generations within a short timeframe. And since the animal´s genome has already been fully sequenced, experts will be able to easily recognize changes in their DNA.

If the fish project proves successful, JAXA next plans to send up frogs to study the effects of space on amphibious life.