On July 19, Russia’s Institute of Medico-Biological Problems launched the Foton-M4, a research satellite that contained geckos, fruit flies, mushrooms, and bacteria. They wanted to see what the effects of microgravity would have on these species, particularly on their sexual behavior. No one really knows how reproduction works—or if it works—in space, so before we send people up there, it makes sense for other animals to give it a whirl first. Five days later, the Foton-M4 stopped responding to commands, prompting concern for the geckos, whose equipment was working in automatic mode.
The craft never reached its intended orbit. Communication was reestablished roughly a week later, and program officials were confident that the geckos would be okay. Unfortunately, that appears not to be the case. The satellitereentered Earth’s atmosphere this weekend—a few weeks ahead of the planned return—and when scientists opened the gecko capsule, they were all dead. And what’s even sadder, they never even got to have sex in space.
According to the agency, it appears that some important equipment—the stuff that regulates temperature, which, as you can imagine, is rather vital—failed and the geckos froze to death. Scientists aren’t sure when exactly that happened, but given the remains of the geckos, it appears they didn’t last too long, thus denying them the chance at enjoying both space and sex. Scientists believe the equipment failure was linked to the satellite’s life support system, and they’re not sure when that began to malfunction. There wasn’t a live feed, but there is a camera on board that record footage, so perhaps analysis of this film will be able to give scientists a better indication of what exactly went wrong and when.
The good news, though, is that fruit flies are much hardier (or perhaps just hornier) than geckos. They had sex and reproduced in microgravity, which should provide the scientists some interesting data to analyze, and is one tiny step toward figuring out a way for humans to reproduce both in space and on other planets. Given that microgravity adversely affects astronauts’ bones, immune systems, and muscles, to name a few impacted areas, reproducing off-Earth will be a little tricky, but where there’s a will, there’s always a way—especially when sex is involved.