Phelsuma ornata - journal.pbio.1001382. Photo: Luke J. Harmon - Harmon LJ (2012) An Inordinate Fondness for Eukaryotic Diversity. PLoS Biol 10(8): e1001382. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001382. Licensed under CC-Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
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Why, exactly, has Russia organised a gecko orgy in space?

Russian scientists hoping to observe geckos mating in orbit are engaged in serious research, as ridiculous as it might sound.

Over the last few days a peculiar drama has played out in the sky above our heads. It's been hard to miss - headlines like "Russia loses control of gecko sex experiment satellite" are compelling, to say the least - but there is a scientific reason for sending one male and four female lizards up into orbit with nothing to do but eat and have sex.

The satellite - Photon-M4 - launched on 19 July from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kasakhstan, which was the USSR's primary launch location for its space missions and continues to be Russia's key spaceport. It made a few orbits of the Earth before those on the ground lost communication with it, and it began to orbit uncontrollably. To avoid falling back through the atmosphere it needed to begin moving up into a higher orbit, but while ground crews could receive data from it, it was ignoring commands.

For a while, it looked like it might have been curtains for the satellite's passengers: fruit flies, plants, seeds, microbe cultures and the infamous geckos. They'd still have access to food, water and light, but without human control, the satellite might spiral down to Earth prematurely, killing all on board. The geckos (which in this case are Phelsuma ornata, the Mauritius ornate day gecko) were meant to make it home alive after a two month journey.

Thankfully, over the weekend the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced that it had managed to take control of Photon-M4 again, getting things back on track. In this context, that means watching every move the geckos made with video cameras set up all around their habitat - the objective of the mission being to "create the conditions for sexual behavior, copulation and breeding geckos", and then, to study what happens to the fertilised eggs that the female geckos lay post-mating. Those eggs will be analysed when the satellite returns to Earth to see how, if anything, they differ to those of normal gecko eggs.

For terrestrial animals (be they human or lizard) space travel causes stresses that evolution never could have prepared us for. Physically, weightlessness requires learning entirely new ways to move, eat and sleep, or even wash one's hair or cry. Things that in an environment with even a reasonably fraction of Earth's gravity, like a small leak in a spacesuit, can become terrifying ordeals - as Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who last year nearly drowned while on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, discovered. The surface tension of water droplets made them cling to his face, his nose, his ears and his eyes, blocking his vision, sight and hearing.

In an environment where liquids behave in unexpected ways, gecko sex might give us clues as to what to expect if and when humans begin living in zero-G (or near-zero-G) environments for a long time. While the record for first humans to have sex in space is still unclaimed (as far as we know), something - weightlessness, radiation, the distribution of fluids throughout the body, something else - could impact the health of sperm, eggs or a developing embryo. Scientists from Russia's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems will be able to study all kinds of factors that might have influenced the gecko breeding process: metabolic changes in the geckos, structural changes within the eggs, skeletal changes (humans on the ISS lose bone density and muscle mass relatively quickly, even when working out regularly) or behavioural changes.

The other experiments on Photon-M4 similarly explore the effects of exposure to a zero-G, Earth orbit environment on different organisms. Some microbes will be analysed with flourescent light to see how their ability to divide changes during flight, while others (sourced from permafrost, so extremely hardy) will be placed on asteroid-like materials to see if they can also survive being exposed to space. Fungal spores will be observed to see how they grow during flight, while others will be watched to see how they decompose in zero-G.

Seeds and silkworm eggs will be bombarded with cosmic radiation to see what happens, and whether they then develop as normal. One of the discoveries that scientists can thank the ISS for is that it's possible to grow plants in orbit, and to complete full lifecycles from seed to plant and back to seed - but weird things can happen to the plants that are then grown from those space-born seeds. A cherry blossom tree seed came back to Earth from eight months aboard the ISS in 2009, and scientists were surprised that the sapling which grew from it sprouted flowers earlier in 2014 - a full six years earlier than such trees normally develop flowers. Its petals were also different to a normal cherry blossom tree's. Something happened to it up in space, it seems, but research like that on Photon-M4 is needed to figure out exactly what.

When missions to Mars do get underway (and on current estimates we're probably 15 to 20 years from that moment), crews are likely to take plants with them to grow for food. They may even plant them on Mars, within glass domes or greenhouses constructed by the first settlers. There may even be small animals too - insects perhaps - and it's vital that we know what will happen not only to humans during the eight-month journey to the Red Planet but what will happen to their food sources. If seeds are rendered sterile by cosmic radiation, any settlement of Mars is likely to be a short one.

Each major space agency has spent time on experiments like the ones on Photon-M. Indeed, Roscosmos' Bion-M satellite, launched in late 2013, held very similar projects to Photon-M4 - only instead of five geckos, there were 45 mice, 15 newts and eight gerbils. The plan was to observe them in orbit for 30 days, with data gathering focused on what might prove useful for keeping human astronauts healthy during any future Mars mission.

Distressingly, most of the animals died under the stress of either weightlessness or failure in the equipment that should have automatically fed them and kept them at a comfortable temperature. Institute of Medical and Biological Problems deputy director Vladimir Sychov memorably said: "Less than half of the mice made it - but that was to be expected. Unfortunately, because of equipment failure, we lost all the gerbils."

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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“A disaster waiting to happen”: Can you trust the government to digitise your personal data?

Privacy and security experts warn against the lesser-scrutinised Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill, claiming bulk data sharing could be vulnerable to hacks.

Last week, the government’s Digital Economy Bill hit the news because of a proposed ban on pornographic websites that didn’t comply with its planned age verification rules. The news was just the right amount of shocking and yes, sexy, to grab the nation’s attention, but in the meantime other parts of the Bill remained unscrutinised. A distinctly un-sexy aspect of the Bill – Part 5, “Digital Government” – aims to completely revolutionise the way your personal data is shared.

In essence, Part 5 allows the government to digitise your data and bulk-share it without informing you or asking for your permission. This data includes your birth, death, and marriage certificates, as well as information on your taxes, court appearances, benefits, student loans, and even parking tickets. If the Bill passes, your information will be shared with local councils, charities, and even businesses – initially, gas and electricity companies.

Today, the Bill will undergo its third reading in the House of Commons. Last Friday, 26 privacy experts wrote to the Daily Telegraph to call for Part 5 to be removed from the Bill due to the lack of technical and legal safeguards in place.

“It's horrid and it's complex and it's going to impact all of us,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of Big Brother Watch, an organisation that scrutinises the government to protect individual privacy. Big Brother Watch was invited by the government to work on the Bill as part of the government’s Open Policy Making, but Samson feels it was ignored when discussing the need for strong safeguards in the Bill. “Holding civil registration documents in bulk and sharing them in bulk is without a doubt a data disaster waiting to happen.”

Samson and her team worry that the Bill does not do enough to protect our personal data. “They tell a little story in one of their documents about mothers being able to click and access their baby’s birth certificate instead of having to go and get a copy, which sounds brilliant except they haven’t defined how they’ll know the mother is who she says she is, and how she will know who she can trust on the other end,” she says. “In a perfect, idyllic utopia, it works, but it doesn’t take hacking into consideration.”

According to the National Audit Office, in 2014-15, there were 9,000 data breaches across government departments. The subsequent inquiries revealed that many officials did not know how to report a breach and there was not enough guidance for the authorities involved. “The government is already failing to look after our data,” says Samson. “Fundamentally [Part 5] will lead to data breaches. People’s data will get lost and we won't ever know how or why.”

Though the government denies it, there are additional fears that this digitisation of data is the beginning of an ID database, a policy that was scrapped in 2011. At the time, then-Home Office minister Damian Green said that ending the proposed National Identity Register demonstrated “the government’s commitment to scale back the power of the state and restore civil liberties”.

Whether or not a register is created, however, Samson and other privacy experts, as well as the British Medical Association, take issue with the fundamental justifications for bulk data sharing. “The reason that they've given for wanting to do all this is ‘wellbeing’, which is crap, frankly,” she says. “In the summer, the Scottish Parliament dropped the Named Person Scheme because the supreme court found that ‘wellbeing’ is simply not a strong enough reason to share people’s personal information. Of course they’re trying to do something great but they’re going about it in a really cack-handed fashion.”

One example of this is that the government intends to share your personal information with the Troubled Families programme to identify people who may be at risk. Although this is ostensibly positive, this information will also be used to determine anti-social behaviour. “On the one hand, they’re saying that they’ll make sure that families who need help will get it, but on the other, if it transpires that you’re noisy or you’re difficult on your estate, they will now share that data so you can have an Asbo.”

Fundamentally, then, although the aims of the Bill seem admirable, there are simply not enough safeguards and rules in place currently for it to safely become law. While this partially might be a simple error on the government’s part, Samson argues that the language of the Bill is “as open and broad and woolly as you can possibly imagine”, causing concern about how it might actually be used in practice. In theory, hundreds or thousands of businesses and authorities could have access to your data without your consent.

“No one is opposing the idea of data sharing,” says Samson, “But a) tell us why, b) keep us informed if you’re using our data, and c) let us control our data. That’s the only way this is all going to move forward.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.