SpaceX launched a baby glow in the dark squid into space, marking one small step for squid and another giant leap for mankind. Joining the squid are tiny “water bear” organisms, with the final destination being the research facility on the International Space Station.
Thursday’s launch was part of a cargo resupply mission, the 22nd of its kind in an ongoing contract NASA has with SpaceX. The Dragon capsule was sent up via the Kennedy Space Center, with peculiar cargo in tow. The glow in the dark squid is part of an ongoing experiment, in which NASA scientists are attempting to determine the long-term effects of gravity on symbiotic relationships.
Though they seem like odd passengers, the newly hatched bobtail squid and their “water bear” companions are going to be observed as they travel. Scientists will use the data to understand symbiotic relationships between beneficial microbes and their hosts, and how space flight might alter or inhibit that relationship.
The experiment will uncover protective measures for future astronauts, as NASA attempts to conduct longer missions in space. The reason for this particular choice of symbiotic relationship is still puzzling, though Jamie Foster, the principal investigator, has answers.
“Animals, including humans, rely on our microbes to maintain a healthy digestive and immune system,” Foster explained. “We do not fully understand how spaceflight alters these beneficial interactions. The UMAMI experiment uses a [glow in the dark squid] to address these important issues in animal health.”
It seems like something out of a sci-fi movie, but the glow in the dark squid actually did take flight with their symbiotic companions, thousands of tardigrades known as “water bears.” Both the squid and its tiny friends are capable of surviving in extreme conditions, which makes them the perfect candidates for experimentation during spaceflight.
“Spaceflight can be a really challenging environment for organisms, including humans, who have evolved to the conditions on Earth,” another principal investigator, Thomas Boothby said. “One of the things we are really keen to do is understand how tardigrades are surviving and reproducing in these environments and whether we can learn anything about the tricks that they are using and adapt them to safeguard astronauts.”
From these experiments, scientists hope to narrow down ways to counteract stress factors that can affect astronauts during extensive trips in space. With more knowledge, it’s likely that trips to far-off worlds will become more accessible and safe.
Though the glow in the dark squid are the spotlighted crew of the Dragon launch, the resupply mission is also bringing a Butterfly IQ Ultrasound to the International Space Station, and new solar panels which will increase operational energy available on the station.
The scientists taking refuge in NASA’s space station are also conduction experiments that test virtual reality-controlled vehicles in space, as well as the range and utility of remote-operated robotic arms. Scientists are studying how to protect against Kidney stones during space travel and how to increase the strength of cotton to reduce water and pesticide use.
Now, as scientists continue their important research in zero-gravity, they will be joined with some glow in the dark squid friends, who are likely stoked to be along for the ride.