NASA shoots tardigrades into space to help improve astronaut health

Tardigrades are found on every continent of the planet and can survive some of the most extreme environments on earth. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are tiny microscopic creatures with eight legs resembling a bear under the microscope. The tiny creatures can survive some extremely harsh conditions, and NASA wants to understand how they can tolerate these environments.NASA specifically wants to understand how the water bear can tolerate the extreme environment where astronauts operate in space, including microgravity and increased radiation levels. NASA is conducting an experiment aboard the ISS called Cell Science-04 to reveal how tardigrades endure the space environment.

NASA says it wants to see what type of tactics the creatures use to survive in space and, over time, what tricks their offspring are able to use. Specifically, researchers want to know if the tactics water bears use between generations are the same or if they change. Scientists think that one way the tardigrades might survive the extreme conditions would be to produce more antioxidants to fight harmful changes in the body caused by increased radiation exposure.

The microscopic creatures have been seen to increase antioxidant production in response to radiation on earth. Scientists believe increased antioxidant production is one of the ways tardigrades evolved to withstand extreme environments on Earth.

Researchers specifically want to look at what happens to tardigrades genes when in space. They want to know which genes are turned on or off in response to short-term and long-term spaceflight. NASA says if one of the solutions used by the creatures is to increase antioxidant production, genes involved in that process should be impacted. NASA's tardigrades will live inside a special science hardware station developed specifically for the creatures.