NASA has launched a mission to study whether humans can conceive in space. The mission, called Micro-11, saw NASA send frozen human and bull sperm samples to the International Space Station (ISS) this month to be tested by scientists on board.
The project is led by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and, according to a NASA statement, the goal is to research “how weightlessness affects sperm.” The target of the study is human sperm but bull sperm was also sent because it is similar enough to be used as a “quality control to ensure the researchers can detect subtle differences in sperm from both species.”
A science fiction inspired process
The process seems to be taken straight out of a science fiction movie. Using the station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), ISS scientists will trigger the samples to activate sperm movement in preparation for fusion with an egg and record the results on video.
The footage along with samples mixed with preservatives will then be returned to earth for analysis. NASA claims the study will be the “first step in understanding the potential viability of reproduction in reduced-gravity conditions.”
Study to complement previous experiments
Dr. Fathi Karouia, non-rodent portfolio lead scientist for NASA’s space biology project, told Inverse: “Based on previous experiments, it seems the lack of gravity facilitates sperm mobility.”
“This is in line with other investigations on different model organisms which have shown that microgravity conditions trigger faster cell regeneration. This flight project is the first to apply proven analytical methods to assess the fertility of human and bovine sperm in spaceflight,” Karouia added.
Back in 1998, studies found that aquatic invertebrates were able to reproduce in space. While in 2017, research confirmed that mouse sperm frozen during a 9 month trip to space produced healthy mice back on Earth.
Although these studies provide some insight into human reproductive behavior in space, they are still a long way from determining conditions for Mars and other planets. Biophysicist Francis Cucinotta of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, told ScienceMag that: “The most damaging radiation is found outside the Earth’s geomagnetic shielding. There are much higher risks in deep space.”
The samples were sent to space on one of Elon Musk’s Space X Falcon 9 rockets. NASA and Space X celebrated the successful lift-off of the rocket which marks its fourteenth resupply mission to the ISS.
Meanwhile, both the mission and the launch have attracted a lot of attention from media with many puns made regarding the sperm and Musk's rocket.