How Animal Movements Help Us Study the Planet

This map shows how elephants moved across Kruger National Park in South Africa over one year. Image Credit: Thaker, M., et al. (2019)

Scientists have been underutilizing a key resource we can use to help us understand Earth: animals. Our fellow Earthlings have a much different, and usually much more direct, relationship with the Earth. They move around the planet in ways and to places we don’t.

What can their movements tell us?

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Light Pollution from Skyglow Changes Bird Behavior

In the astronomy community, we typically this of light pollution as an overall negative. Much research points out its negative effect on our sleep and even our observational equipment. It also significantly impacts wildlife; however, according to a new paper from some Belgian, Swiss, and German researchers, not all of that impact is negative. 

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What Animals Have Been to Space?

What Animals Have Been to Space?

When we think of astronauts, we think of humans. But there have been plenty of animals who have traveled in space as well.

When we think of spaceflight, we think astronauts. You’re a human, you perceive the Universe with your human-centric attitudes. You… specist.

The reality is that the vast number of living things sent to space were our animal buddies. This is a tough topic to hit, as it’s kinda sad. More sensitive animal loving viewers might want might to skip this one, or at least grab some tissue. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

We’ve thrown so many different kinds of animals into space, a better question might be: what animals haven’t been in space? It’s a Noah’s Ark salad of living things.

Mice, monkeys, fish, reptiles, frogs, insects, dogs, and of course, those hardy hardy tardigrades, who laugh at the rigors of spaceflight, and eat vacuum for breakfast. We’ve brought them all home safe and sound. Well, some of them. A good number of them. All the tardigrades are fine. I think.

At the beginning of the space age, scientists sent a series of animals in high altitude balloons to test the physical demands of spaceflight. Scientists had no idea whether creatures could even survive high altitude or radiation, so they sent insects, mammals and even primates nearly halfway to space.

This is how we roll. Mostly we make all kinds of weird assumptions about what might happen, and really it’s better to send a handful of bugs than a person. When we first worked out flight, there were concerns all the air would get sucked out of our lungs and we’d just pass out. Sometimes we get a little freaked out.

This high altitude business all seemed to go well enough. So they packed the poor creatures, I mean our brave animal adventurer friends onto left-over German V-2 rockets and fired them on ballistic trajectories, including a few monkeys.

The Russians… oooh, Russians… were the first to send dogs into space, with Tsygan and Dezik. They didn’t actually reach orbit, and were both brought home safely. Good dogs!

Sputnik 2
Laika inside Sputnik 2

Here’s the one you’re waiting for… Laika was launched aboard the second spacecraft to ever orbit the Earth, Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. At that point, scientists weren’t sure if humans could even survive spaceflight, or if we’d just dissolve after soiling our space pantaloons.

Oh, you hu-mans. Soviets chose the toughest dog they could find, a stray mutt they found living on the streets of Moscow. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, I could.

If I did, I’d make it more like, they went to the toughest dog bar in all of Moscow and met the bouncer, Laika at a high stakes winner take all poker-slash-Russian roulette game for all the bones, in a dark smokey dog house in the back.

Originally, it was reported Laika lasted 6 days in orbit, but in 2002, it was uncovered that she actually died shortly after launch. Either way, Laika was doomed, as technology to recover a capsule from space was still a few years off. Apparently there was some kind of race on.

Five months after launch, Sputnik 2 burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and Laika’s name still lives on to this day in legend.

In the 50s and 60s, there was a whole series of monkeys sent to space. A third survived their flights and then went on to live long monkey lives, reminiscing about their days of monkey glory hanging out in the primate version of that bar in “The Right Stuff”.

In 1961, Ham the Chimp was sent into space on board a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Ham was trained to believe he was flying the spacecraft. The brave little tyke demonstrated that human astronauts could do the same, as long as they were rewarded with fruit.

Three months later, Alan Shepard followed in Ham’s footsteps, becoming the first American in space. Whether the fruit rewards program was retained is classified.

Chimps in Space
Ham, the Chimpanzee

From that point on, it was a river of living things traveling into space: crickets, ants, spiders, newts, frogs, fish, jellyfish, sea urchins, snails and shrimp.

Even cockroaches. Seriously, somebody thought that would be a good idea. I suspect it was part of some kind of secret Atomic SuperRoach program.

One of the most poignant stories of animals traveling to space has got to be the nematode worms that flew to orbit with the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

When the shuttle tore up on re-entry, killing all 7 astronauts, the nematode worms survived the re-entry and crash landing. There were 60 other science experiments on board Columbia, many of which included animals: fish, insects, spiders, bees and even silk worms. Only the nematodes survived.

It wasn’t the originals that they found. Nematodes have a lifecycle of 7-10 days, so the ones they discovered were probably 5th generation removed from the initial spaceketeers.

As you can see, we aren’t the only creatures to go to space. In fact, we’re the minority. Space belongs to the tardigrades, mice and nematode worms.

I for one welcome our horrible waterbear overlords.

Okay, I’m going to brace myself for this one. Do you think it’s ethical to use animals in spaceflight? Tell us your opinion in the comments below.

Rocket Frog, Space Bat, and Now… a Launch Armadillo?

Run, little fella -- no, wrong way!

At 4:10 a.m. EDT this morning an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-3) communications satellite into orbit. The early morning launch may have gone unwatched except by the most determined space fans (like this guy) but it definitely didn’t go unnoticed by one particular creature: an armadillo, spooked out of hiding by the thundering Atlas V engines and caught on GoPro camera by Matthew Travis.

Watch the video above — or better yet, go to YouTube and watch in fullscreen HD — and pay attention to the foreground field around the 2-minute mark… you’ll see something running across the grass toward the exhaust cloud. Sure looks like an armadillo to me!* (And yes, they’re that quick!)

Armadillos are ubiquitous across much of the southern U.S. and it’s not unusual to spot one on the Space Coast — but they’re not normally included in launch videos!

This little guy joins the ranks of unlucky critters caught in the way of rocket launches, the most recent being an amphibian sent airborne by the launch of NASA’s LADEE mission from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Prior to that, a freetail bat was spotted clinging to the STS-119 external fuel tank during countdown on March 15, 2009 (and then there was the turkey vulture struck by a rising shuttle stack… ugh.)

The fates of those last animals most likely weren’t good, but who knows… maybe this armadillo had better luck. They’re pretty tough.

Google+ HT and video credit: Matthew Travis. Check out Matthew’s site Zero-G News here and follow him on Twitter @spacearium.


ALSO: the Antares/Cygnus launch at 10:58 a.m. EDT from Wallops today also had an animal visitor: a bald eagle, which had happened to be perched atop one of the four lightning towers. See photos here. (Tip of the feather to Tom Wolf.)

*Update 9/19: Some (like launch photographer Ben Cooper) have suggested that this might be a hog rather than an armadillo. Both can be found in the area and can run pretty fast, and considering its apparent size in a wide-angle lens that may be the case. Hard to tell exactly, but it’s certainly got a close-up view of the launch!

Gerbils, mice perish as Russian spacecraft returns to Earth

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.

Martian Settlers May Need Chickens To Conquer The Red Planet

If humanity ever intends upon on settling Mars (by settling I mean a one way trip with no plans on returning back to Earth), they are going to need a whole lot of chickens if they want to survive–let alone thrive–upon the red planet.

Aside from providing an excellent source of protein, chickens could help future settlers raise not only crops (such as wheat, barely, etc.) upon the barren Martian soil, but also help colonists keep the lights on through a very useful by-product (aka chicken dung).

Unlike Earth, Martian dirt is very hostile towards plant life. Unless we can genetically alter plants to grow upon the red planets soil, future settlers will have to heavily rely upon the home world for their daily bread.

Future scientists could help reduce or (even better) eliminate that need by using chicken manure, which (as far as animal dung goes) has one of the highest concentration of nutrients available, making it a perfect choice for raising plants on Mars.

But providing food for plants isn’t the only reason why future Martian colonists will probably choose these ugly (yet useful) creatures, as chicken dung can also be used for energy as well.

Using an old scientific process called pyrolysis (which is cooking biomass like manure without the presence of oxygen), future settlers could turn this smelly chicken manure into biochar (which is a charcoal like product).

Just like many farmers on Earth, future colonists could turn biochar into bio-fuel, helping to power their future  space settlements along with Martian solar panels (or an underground nuclear reactor).

While other types of animals manure could also be used for raising crop or keeping the lights on, it would be much easier (not to mention cheaper) transporting chickens en mass than larger animals.

This is mainly due to the fact than an egg (averaging about 57 grams), weigh much less than say, a baby calf (which would weigh 32 kilograms at birth), making chickens the logical choice as far as future space animals go.

Although humans may eventually import other animals to Mars (whether for food or as pets), it may not be surprising to see chickens accompany future explorers in their quest to conquer the red planet.

Image Credit: Andrei Niemimäki via Flickr

Sources: New York Times, Ezine Articles, Wise Geek

Who were the Space Monkeys?

Albert II in preparation for his historic flight. Image Credit: NASA

The Space Age was an era of unprecedented technological development. In addition to developing the rockets and modules needed to put astronauts into space, considerable resources were also dedicated towards testing the effects spaceflight would have on the human body. In order to do this, test subjects needed to be selected that were physiologically similar enough to human beings.

For NASA, the Russians, and many space programs that have followed, the choice was to send simians (aka. monkeys) into space. While space missions would rely other animals to test the effects spaceflight would have on living organisms (such as dogs, guinea pigs, and even insects), monkeys were the most-widely used since they are more closely related to humans.


In the late 1940s, both NASA and the Soviet Space Program were working diligently to try and develop space launch capability. However, a going concern at the time was the risks posed by crewed spaceflight. At the time, the effects of weightlessness on the human body were unknown, and whether or not a human could even survive exposure was the subject of much scientific debate.

American Space Monkeys:

Russian Space Monkeys:

Other Space Agencies:

Although men have gone to space, they were not the first ones there. Scientists have sent a number of different animals up into space including monkeys. Both Russia and America sent monkeys into space. This is because scientists wanted to determine what the biological effects of space travel were before they sent humans up. While Russia only used rhesus monkeys, the US used many different species including rhesus monkeys, squirrel monkeys, cynomolgus monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees. Even France sent up two monkeys into space during the 1960’s. These animals were both recovered alive.

Many of the monkeys sent up into space died either on impact or in space. The US sent four monkeys into space named Albert, all of which died. The first monkey that actually passed the Karman line and made it into space was Albert II. He was sent up in 1949 and died on impact.

Gordo, who was also known as Old Reliable, was sent into space in 1958. A squirrel monkey, he was chosen because of the similarity of the species to the human body. Gordo was lost on impact and neither him nor the shuttle was recovered; however, scientists were heartened by the mission because they believed it helped prove that humans could survive in space. The first monkeys to survive space were Able and Miss Baker who were sent up in 1959.

The Russians sent dogs up into space in addition to monkeys, which is why they did not send nearly as many monkeys into space as America did. Thus the first monkey that they actually sent into space was not until 1983. The monkeys that the Russians sent into space were named according to the letters of the alphabet. One of these monkeys – Dryoma – who went to space in 1987 – was later given to Fidel Castro. The last monkeys the Russians sent up into space were Lapik and Multik whe went up in 1997. Both of them survived the mission, but Multik had a heart attack a day after the flight during medical tests.

One of the most famous monkeys ever sent into space was Ham the Chimp. He was trained to operate the controls of the spaceship becoming the first animal to not just be a passenger. Ham was recovered safe after his capsule crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists were able to determine that astronauts would then be able to operate instruments in space and Alan Shepard went into space several months after Ham.

We have written many interesting articles about space monkeys and animals sent into space here at Universe Today. Here’s Russia to send monkey to Mars, Who was the First Monkey to go into Space?, 50th Anniversary of Historic Space Monkey Flight, What Animals have been to Space?, Who was the First Animal to go into Space?, Who was the First Dog to go into Space?

For more information, check out animals in space and monkeys in space fifty years later.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on spacesuits.