Shuttle’s insect astronauts

British astronaut Piers Sellers will have some extra passengers when he rockets into space next month – thousands of fruit flies.

Piers, 51, and his six crewmates on the shuttle Discovery will deliver the insects to the international space station for research to help humans survive long space missions. Experts want to study the flies, like those pictured here, to help understand why changes develop in astronauts’ immune systems when they spend time in orbit.

Trays of fruit fly eggs will hatch out aboard the space station. But there is no danger of them infesting the place because they will be kept in special compartments. During the shuttle’s 12-day mission, a second generation of flies will mature from eggs to adults. They will return to Earth fully developed and then be compared with insects hatched at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California.

Scientists believe that biological changes in weightlessness cause the human immune system to become supressed. At the same time, it appears that some bacteria become more virulent in the same conditions. A combination of the two events creates a worrying hazard for astronauts.

Despite the obvious differences between humans and insects, the scientists believe the study will help them unlock vital secrets about the immune system that protects against disease. Principal investigator Sharmila Bhattacharya said: “Understanding the immune system using fruit flies will be similar to the process we used to understand and build complex machines. We start small and simple and progress to more complicated and advanced concepts, thus extending our understanding in the future to helping optimise human performance in space.”

Piers is due to make at least two space walks on the shuttle mission which is scheduled to blast off from the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, on July 1.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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