Beginning its construction in 1998, when the first module was launched, NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) took over 115 space flights to compete. It was in the year 2000 when the first astronauts ventured into space to make their home in the space station. Since then, the ISS has continually orbited Earth at a speed of around 17,500 miles per hour, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes and travelling a distance equivalent to the Moon and back every 24 hours. On average, the 200 individuals who went aboard the space station may have seen 16 sunrises and sunsets in a 24 hour period. The ISS is comprised of modules, which house the astronauts, connect parts of the station together or offer scientific labs to conduct research. The scientific labs are where crewmembers aim to explore the effects of living in Space. Since the first crewmembers arrived there have been numerous experiments conducted aboard this suspended structure.
Most recently, this week sees fruit flies at the centre of a new area of research. Researchers from Stanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), an independent non-profit medical research organisation, revealed they aim to send six boxes of fruit flies to the International Space Station. The purpose of this is to study the effects zero gravity may have on the heart. By investigating the effect of prolonged periods in a zero gravity environment, scientists may improve their understanding of how these conditions may affect those living in space. Astronauts are required to work out at least twice a day to counteract any unwanted effects zero gravity may have on muscles and bones. The fruit fly was selected for research due to traits which it shares with human DNA, particularly the structure of its heart.
Researchers selected the fruit fly due to its fly heart sharing several cardiac features and components with the human heart: The fruit fly was selected as an ideal candidate for studying cardiovascular changes within a zero gravity environment for this reason. Contained within the six boxes of fruit flies being sent to the ISS are a total number of 1,800 fruit flies. This total consists of both fruit fly eggs and adult fruit flies which are expected to lay further eggs upon the ISS; this may result in fruit flies which have spent their entire life in a zero gravity environment. The fruit flies aim to depart from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre on the 1st June 2017 to journey for the ISS. The mission to the ISS aims to be undertaken by Space X’s Dragon spacecraft, a free-flying spacecraft known for its cargo and passenger delivery functions.
The fruit flies are expected to remain upon the ISS for one month before returning back to Earth where a series of tests may be conducted upon the spacefaring test subjects; these tests may range from cardiac measurements to skeletal examinations. By using fruit flies as subjects, researchers aim to understand the short and long-term effects space travel may have on the heart. The more humans understand about the expanse of space, the greater our chances may be to voyage deeper into space, potentially colonising other planets or launching more space stations. With each experiment, scientists are learning more and gradually humanity may be brought closer to the stars. Looking toward the future, SBP Professor Karen Ocorr understands the importance of “understanding the affect a microgravity environment may have on the human heart for both the traveller and their potential future children.”
How may studying fruit flies in space help scientists understand the effect of a zero gravity environment on the heart?