September 2, 2014

Too Much Sex? Roscosmos Confirms Geckos Died In Space

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Five geckos sent into space so that researchers could analyze their reproductive habits in microgravity have died in orbit, officials from the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) confirmed on Monday.

The four male and one female lizards were sent into space on a Photon-M4 satellite on July 19 and returned to Earth 44 days later, explained Howard Amos of The Telegraph. However, when Roscosmos scientists traveled to the probe’s landing site (a field in the Orenburg Region of southern Russia), they found that none of the geckos had survived.

BBC News said that Russian media outlets are claiming that the geckos might have frozen to death after a heating system failure in the Photon-M4 satellite. Despite those reports, however, Russian space officials have only said that the demise of the creatures was being investigated.

According to The Guardian reporter Alan Yuhas, a representative at the Institute of Biomedical Problems (ISTC), which was involved in the experiment, told Russian news agency Itar-Tass that it was “too early to talk about the geckos’ cause of death.”

However, an unidentified source in the scientific commission later told the Interfax wire service that it was “clear” that the geckos froze, probably “due to a failure of the equipment meant to ensure the temperature of the box with the animals,” Yuhas added. That source also said that the creatures “could have died at any stage of the flight, and it’s impossible to judge when based on the animals’ mummified remains.”

Not all of the news was bad, however – drosophila fruit flies that had also been traveling on the satellite not only survived, but successfully reproduced while in outer space as well. Mushrooms and plant seeds were also being monitored as part of the experiment, according to BBC News, and a special vacuum furnace was being used to analyze the solidification and melting of metal alloys in extremely low-gravity conditions.

“While scientists were unable to follow exactly what the geckos were up to in real time, cameras installed inside the satellite means they will now examine the footage to see whether the geckoes managed to have sex, and when and how they met their demise,” Amos said. “One unnamed Russian academic involved in the project… told Russian news agencies that the lizards had died fairly early on in the flight.”

“We can say with confidence that they died at least a week before the landing because their bodies were partly mummified,” that individual said, according to The Telegraph. “Hypothermia is not the main possible cause but only one of the options. Others include a possible malfunction of the on-board equipment and life-support system.”

Less than a week after the launch of the Photon-M4 satellite, Roscosmos officials revealed that the probe was no longer responding to commands, leading to fears that the experiments could have been jeopardized. Fortunately, however, they were able to re-establish contact with the probe on July 29, allowing the mission to continue as scheduled.