geckos in space
July 29, 2014

Russia Re-Establishes Contact With Gecko Sex Study Satellite

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

UPDATE: July 29, 2014 4AM

After losing contact with a satellite filled with geckos taking part in an unusual reproductive experiment late last week, Russian space officials have re-established communication with the Photon-M probe, various media outlets have confirmed.

According to BBC News reports, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) successfully regained contact with the satellite on Saturday night, and has since held 17 communication sessions with the probe. Ground control originally lost the link on Thursday.

“We have conducted several communication sessions, and the link is stable,” Roscosmos chief Oleg Ostapenko told on Saturday. “We are sure that we will be able to conduct 90 percent of what we initially planned.”

With communication channels re-opened, The Daily Mail reported Monday the mission will continue as scheduled, with the probe and its lizard crew expected to return to Earth sometime in September.

The satellite, which launched on July 19, includes a total of five geckos (four males and one female) that were sent into space as part of a project designed to analyze the impact of microgravity on their breeding habits and the health of their eggs. Their activity is to be filmed, and the footage reviewed by scientists at a later date.

ORIGINAL: July 26, 2014 4AM

Russian space officials said that they have lost contact with a satellite containing geckos participating in an experiment to see what impact microgravity will have on their biology and their sexual behaviors.

According to Jonathan O'Callaghan of the Daily Mail, a total of five lizards (four males and one female) were sent into space on a Photon-M satellite on July 19. Now, less than a week later, ground control has confirmed that the probe is no longer responding to commands, jeopardizing the mission.

“The two-month mission was planned to monitor by video how well the geckos sexually reproduce in space before returning them safely to Earth,” O'Callaghan said. “Following the launch, the satellite was failing to respond to commands to start its engine and move to a higher orbit… [but] the rest of its systems are operating nominally.”

“The equipment which is working in automatic mode, and in particular the experiment with the geckos is working according to the program,” added Oleg Voloshin, a spokesperson with the Russia's Institute of Medico-Biological Problems, which is in charge of the experiment.

That means that the experimental geckos are still alive – for now. However, the Photon-M satellite and its reptilian crew will most likely be lost in a few months unless specialists are able to re-establish communications, said Alec Luhn of The Guardian. In addition, if the probe’s life-support system gives out, the geckos will likely die from hunger in roughly 10 weeks time.

The Photon-M satellite is part of a research satellite program dating back to 1985, and was carried into space using a Soyuz rocket launching from the Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 19, Luhn added. The mission, which had been pushed back for three weeks due to electrical system tests, was the first Photon-M to be launched since a satellite carrying lizards, gerbils, butterflies and other creatures was sent into space in 2007.

O'Callaghan, citing Interfax news reports, said experts believe that the satellite is capable of remaining in space for up to four months. Currently, it is stuck at an orbital height of approximately 155 miles (250 kilometers) – well short of the 357 miles (575 km) altitude called for in the original mission specifications. However, a post-launch planned burn designed to get the Photon-M to the latter height failed, leaving it stuck at the lower altitude.

“Ground controllers are now rushing to try and regain communication, as it's unknown how long it can survive at this lower orbit with atmospheric drag,” the Daily Mail reporter said. “If control is regained, the capsule will re-enter Earth's atmosphere in mid-September and land via parachute in southern Russia. Failure to do so will mean it will be unlikely that the animals on board can be returned alive to Earth.”

The geckos on board the satellite, O'Callaghan said, are Mauritius ornate day gecko (Phelsuma ornata), which are reptiles capable of reaching lengths of up to 12 centimeters. In addition to two months worth of food, their habitat includes a ventilation system for fresh air, a temperature and light control system, and a waste disposal system.

“A video camera is being used to monitor their behavior and any eggs that are produced,” he added. “These are expected to hatch after 40 days, which means they would hatch while the mission is still in space – an important goal that would assess the effects of microgravity on birth.”