Animals in space just can't get a break. First, everything from kittens to snakes were sent on the vomit comet to confusedly tumble around in zero-gravity. Then, mice were recruited to live aboard the International Space Station. Now, Russia sent a harem of geckos to get lucky in orbit.
Love nest space habitat for five lucky geckos. Image credit: Roscosmos
Along with a slew of other experiments, four female geckos and one male gecko stowed aboard the Foton M4 capsule earlier this month. The science satellite was propelled into orbit by Soyuz, lifting off on July 19th.
Foton M4 lifting off aboard the Soyuz. Image credit: Roscosmos
The objective was to leave them in orbit for two months, taping every interaction to see how microgravity impacts their sexual behaviour. Hopefully orbit won't drop their fertility too badly, so investigators will have plenty of eggs to study their embryonic development once they return. Previous experiments with jellyfish indicate that being born in space can have unintended consequences, so this experiment could provide a peek into how microgravity reproduction could impact vertebrates.
Foton-M is a sexy, shiny sphere of science. Image credit: Roscosmos
Alas, a communications hiccup showed up on July 24th, when the spacecraft stopped responding to Roscosmos. Its status was reported in all sorts of carefully sanitized phrases like "on a nonintended orbit" as Russia's Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) attempted to figure out what was going on. Like our beloved ISEE-3, the Foton-M science satellite was happy to keep on chirping at us, it was just a bit less inclined to listen to directions. The geckos and the rest of the biology experiments are self-sustaining, requiring no external input to do their thing, but no one ever likes to admit they lost control of geckos in space.
That's about when John Oliver got involved, airing a passionate, celebrity-backed plea to "Go get those geckos!" during his delightfully science-friendly Last Week Tonight:
The gecko's not-so-dire situation captured the imagination, even spawning posters in support of their microgravity gyrations. Apparently the campaign worked, as Roscosmos is reporting they have reestablished contact, although they still aren't certain what went wrong.
This isn't the first time geckos have gone to space. It's actually the fourth, each mission longer than the one before. The first gecko-pioneers were aboard Foton M2, kept without food or water for 16 days. They unsurprisingly lost weight, leading scientists to conclude that geckos need sustenance to survive. The next adventure was on Foton M3, where the geckos were kept under NASA-designed surveillance for 12 days with access to lick plates to drink droplets of water. Finally, they headed out on a month-long journey on Bion M1, an ambitious mission that also included gerbils, mice, and a not-so-functional food delivery system.
A gecko who will presumably get lucky in orbit. Image credit: Roscosmos
According to a fantastically detailed writeup on LiveScience, while the previous generations of space-faring geckos were all Pachydactylus geckos, this set of geckonauts are Mauritius ornate day geckos. Both species take a temperature-dependent 40 to 70 days to gestate eggs, but the Mauritius geckos have sticky eggs that may act as an anchor in microgravity.
Assuming everything keeps going well, the spacecraft will reenter the Earth's atmosphere sixty days after launch, deploying a parachute following the same design as that used in Yuri Gagarin's famous Vostok landing.
Good luck, little geckos. I hope that period of silence was just you demanding a moment of privacy to set the mood, and that your offspring teach us new and wonderful things about reproduction in space.