Exposing organisms to the space environment provides us with knowledge of how living cells are impacted by the stress factors out there. And the few groups of animals that have the potential to get through a space journey alive will constitute a key source of knowledge when the time comes to create ecosystems in space.
'For the first time ever, animals are now being exposed to an unmitigated space environment, with both vacuum conditions and cosmic radiation,' says the ecologist Ingemar Joensson, a researcher at Kristianstad University in Sweden.
One of the aims of sending the tiny tardigrades into space is to find out whether they can cope with the rugged conditions in space, which has previously been predicted but never tested.
Tardigrades are one of the most tolerant animals on earth when it comes to dehydration and radiation, a characteristic that would be required in order to survive a trip through space. But the project is also part of research into the fundamental physiology of the tardigrade, primarily of the mechanisms that underlie their ability to withstand desiccation.
The project, named TARDIS, has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to be one of ten European projects being given the opportunity to carry out scientific experiments in a true space environment.
Ingemar Joensson, who is participating in the space project together with two German biologists and a radiation biologist in Stockholm, will then examine the returning tardigrades in great detail. Among other things, he will determine whether they still have the capacity to reproduce, and whether there has been any damage to their genes.