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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The best Instagram accounts to follow if you love space

As new space findings hit the news on an almost daily basis, the app offers an alternative window onto the universe.

If there’s anything that can break us away from the humdrum monotony of modern life, it’s space. It renders us awe-struck and captures our imagination with its vastness and surreal imagery, and as astronomy-related research expands, cosmic mysteries continue to unfold.

Whether it’s the occurrence of rare celestial events, the discovery of exoplanets that could potentially harbour life, or the confirmation of gravitational waves that ripple through the space-time continuum, it seems that there are new findings propelled onto our newsfeeds daily.  

Yet one of the best ways of keeping up to date with the latest research and projects at the frontier of space is on Instagram, the social media platform. Here are some of the accounts you should be following to get the greatest insight into space:

1. SpaceX (@spacex)

The aerospace company SpaceX designs spacecrafts and reusable rockets in the hope that their technology can one day make human life multi-planetary. Spearheaded be CEO Elon Musk, the company has the lofty ambition of one day colonising Mars. Below is a spectacular image of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket in its first-stage entry:

 

Photographer unexpectedly captures Falcon 9 second stage burn and first stage entry @slowcountrylife

A photo posted by SpaceX (@spacex) on

 

2. International Space Station (@iss)

The International Space Station, a habitable satellite whirling around the Earth approximately 16 times per day in low orbit, has an Instagram feed displaying the equipment on board as well as stunning pictures of the Earth from a distance. Here’s a picture from the station 250 miles above earth depicting the Earth as an azure blue marble:

 

The blue of the #bahamas can't be mistaken, even from 250 miles above. #YearInSpace #nasa #space #spacestation : @stationcdrkelly

A photo posted by International Space Station (@iss) on

 

3. Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake)

Currently aboard the International Space Station is Tim Peake, a British astronaut. As he has carried out his work on Expedition 46/47 on the station, he has shared a range of photos of Earth that he has shot with his Nikon D4 from the vantage point of space, from reefs off the coast of Mozambique to the glint of sun highlighting Vancouver Island. Here we have a clear image of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”:

 

3/3: The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ clear to see amongst the volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

A photo posted by Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) on

 

4. Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly)

Scott Kelly is an engineer and a retired American astronaut who recently spent a year commanding the International Space Station, travelling 143,846,525 miles around our globe in the process. A quick scroll through his profile will demonstrate just how profound his experience must have been at the shores of space, and includes a host of images of the aurora borealis:

 

#GoodMorning #aurora and the Pacific Northwest! #YearInSpace #northernlights #beautiful #morning #space #spacestation #iss

A photo posted by Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly) on

 

5. Nasa Goddard (@nasagoddard)

Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre was the company’s very first flight centre. It’s the largest of its kind, and the official Instagram account for the centre serves as a highlight reel for everything NASA is working on. There are behind-the-scenes looks at the James Webb Space Telescope under construction, computer-simulated images of supermassive black holes, and clear views of distant galaxies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope:

 

Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have taken advantage of gravitational lensing to reveal the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the big bang and are fainter than any other galaxy yet uncovered by Hubble. The team has determined for the first time with some confidence that these small galaxies were vital to creating the universe that we see today. An international team of astronomers, led by Hakim Atek of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, has discovered over 250 tiny galaxies that existed only 600-900 million years after the big bang— one of the largest samples of dwarf galaxies yet to be discovered at these epochs. The light from these galaxies took over 12 billion years to reach the telescope, allowing the astronomers to look back in time when the universe was still very young. Although impressive, the number of galaxies found at this early epoch is not the team’s only remarkable breakthrough, as Johan Richard from the Observatoire de Lyon, France, points out. “The faintest galaxies detected in these Hubble observations are fainter than any other yet uncovered in the deepest Hubble observations.” By looking at the light coming from the galaxies the team discovered that the accumulated light emitted by these galaxies could have played a major role in one of the most mysterious periods of the universe’s early history — the epoch of reionization. Reionization started when the thick fog of hydrogen gas that cloaked the early universe began to clear. Ultraviolet light was now able to travel over larger distances without being blocked and thus the universe became transparent to ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/ESA #nasagoddard #Hubble #HST #space #galaxy

A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on

 

6. Roscosmos (@roscosmosofficial)

Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency at the heart of all space endeavours in Russia. The agency is involved in the maintenance and progression of the International Space Station, and is working on its own research projects such as a planned robotic mission to one of Mars’s moons.  Here’s the launch of a rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome which is under construction:

 

7. Nasa (@nasa)

Over the years, Nasa has firmly committed to pushing the boundaries of space exploration, and, as its 12.3m Instagram acolytes would agree, it has been successful. As part of the Frontier Fields campaign investigating galaxy clusters, a recent deep field image from the Hubble revealed bounds of galaxies in the constellation of Leo:

 

Nearly as deep as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, this incredible image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals thousands of colorful galaxies in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). This vibrant view of the early universe was captured as part of the Frontier Fields campaign, which aims to investigate galaxy clusters in more detail than ever before, and to explore some of the most distant galaxies in the universe. Galaxy clusters are massive. They can have a tremendous impact on their surroundings, with their immense gravity warping and amplifying the light from more distant objects. This phenomenon, known as gravitational lensing, can help astronomers to see galaxies that would otherwise be too faint, aiding our hunt for residents of the primordial universe. Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt #nasa #hubble #astronomy #science #space #galaxy #galaxies

A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on