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Gerbils, mice perish as Russian spacecraft returns to Earth

Bion-M's mission patch. Credit: NASA

Bion-M’s mission patch. Credit: NASA

A menagarie of animals launched to space last month has arrived back on Earth — with a few casualties for the voyage.

Bion-M, a small satellite carrying gerbils, lizards, mice and other critters, launched in April from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia and arrived, as planned, safely on Earth on Sunday (May 19).

However, not all of the assorted crew survived the voyage.

“This is the first time that animals have been put in space on their own for so long,” said Vladimir Sychov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as reported by several news agencies. Half of the 45 mice were lost in the journey, which was expected, but the eight gerbils unexpectedly died “because of equipment failure”, he added.

The Bion-M hardware is readied for flight. Credit: Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos)

The Bion-M hardware is readied for flight. Credit: Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos)

Still, the scientists expect to pull a lot of long-duration data out of the mission. It is expected to help scientists better understand the effects of microgravity on biological organisms, with applications for long human voyages such as a trip to Mars.

Microgravity does a number on human systems, as just-returned-from-space astronaut Chris Hadfield eloquently described recently.

Bones lose calcium, muscles shrink and there are changes to your blood pressure flow and even your eyes. Taking a trip to space is like experiencing aging on fast-forward (although luckily, the effects are mostly reversible.)

Michael Foale on the ISS's treadmill. Credit: NASA

Michael Foale on the ISS’s treadmill. Astronauts on station exercise two hours a day, typically, to fight against microgravity’s effects. Credit: NASA

“Knowledge gained in the use of animals reveals the fundamental mechanisms of adaptation to spaceflight,” NASA stated in a web page about the mission. “Such knowledge provides insight for potential long-duration human spaceflight risk mitigation strategies and potential new approaches for Earth bound biomedical problems.”

Before Bion-M journeyed to space, most mouse studies only took place during space shuttle missions that were in orbit for a maximum of two weeks. The new 30-day mission doubled the length of previous studies and also allow more advanced technologies to be brought to bear on the science, stated NASA, who participated in the mission.

“NASA researchers will study the cellular mechanisms responsible for spaceflight-induced changes on tissues and cell growth in mice, including muscle, bone and the cardiovascular and reproductive systems,” the agency wrote in an April press release. “They also will study behavioral effects in gerbils.”

Other questions long-term voyages have to consider: the effects of radiation on your body, and whether it is ethical to conceive children in microgravity.

Still, that’s not deterring thousands of people from signing up for a one-way trip to Mars with the private group Mars One.


Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Olaf2 May 20, 2013, 7:32 PM

    Too bad. Mice are the most intelligent beings on this planet.

    • Kevin Frushour May 21, 2013, 3:14 AM

      Dolphins are no slouches, either. I saw one do a backwards somersault through a hoop while whistling the Star Spangled Banner the other day,

      • Olaf2 May 21, 2013, 5:19 PM

        Now that you say it. Dolphins even tops the intelligence of mice.

        Humans comes third.

        • William Sparrow May 21, 2013, 9:39 PM

          Dolphins are resurrected physicists.

    • Brenda Jean Louise May 21, 2013, 12:13 PM

      Well, no actually. There’s also octopi and squirrels too.. Even the occasional dog.

  • SEO Uzman? May 20, 2013, 8:40 PM

    Russians are great

    • Planemo May 20, 2013, 10:50 PM

      Humanity you mean?

      • Kalle Last May 21, 2013, 3:46 PM

        Russians -> humanity
        US -> ‘murica!

        At least that’s how it often looks like :)

        • Planemo May 21, 2013, 4:07 PM


  • kkt May 20, 2013, 8:41 PM

    “Failure is not an option!” he squeaked…

    • Planemo May 20, 2013, 10:51 PM

      lol…good one.

  • James McLaren May 20, 2013, 10:42 PM

    do we have any pictures of these guys in microgravity.. 😀

  • philw1776 May 20, 2013, 11:13 PM

    First, were there any cats on the mission? I’d suggest weighing them.

  • Tim May 21, 2013, 12:29 AM

    What’s the point of this experiment when we have the ISS for micro-gravity testing? Seems rather antiquated and frankly pointless since the Russians are part of the ISS mission.

    • Olaf2 May 21, 2013, 5:21 PM

      In science experiments needs to be duplicated by different groups.
      A one time experiment, or an experiment by a same group could hide flaws in the experiment.

  • Kevin Frushour May 21, 2013, 3:15 AM

    Ugh… the idea of bodies floating around in Zero G for a month, bumping into each other and leaking… ugh.

    • Planemo May 21, 2013, 4:06 PM

      lol…yes, it sounds so cool thinking of being in space in a space vehicle. It is those things that the average person just does not think about nor realize. What goes into the human body, must come out. There is more. I know exactly what you meant. ;~).

  • Lord Haw-Haw. May 21, 2013, 2:27 PM

    Hi Folks.

    Of mice and men, hopefully nobody will level the charge of being off-topic but this seems an opportune time from Russia with love.
    The publisher of Russian Space Web online has a brand new book coming out on the subject of Russian spaceflight:


    It is retailing pre-order for $39.95 which is over the Moon value considering the content and lavish layout:


    Thank you comrades!

  • Aqua4U May 22, 2013, 6:32 PM

    Plop…. Oopski…