January 25, 2022
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1 big thing: It's time to take sex in space seriously
Before humans can settle off-Earth, scientists need to figure out how — or even whether — people can reproduce in space.
Why it matters: Powerful figures in the space industry like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have dreams of a future where millions of people live in space, which would naturally require a self-sustaining population of humans somewhere other than Earth.
- "It has been [more than] 20 years since the last systematic experiments on vertebrate reproduction and development in spaceflight," Gary Strangman, the scientific lead at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, told me.
- "Yet we are now actively planning missions and building rockets to reach the Moon and Mars. Reproduction will almost certainly be relevant to a three-year mission to Mars. And we don’t want to discover serious adverse effects by accident."
What's happening: Scientists have sent a number of experiments to the International Space Station in recent years to try to answer various questions about what it might take for mammals, and eventually humans, to reproduce in space.
- A study published in June found freeze-dried sperm from mice sent to the ISS weren't adversely impacted by the environment in low-Earth orbit, producing healthy pups back on Earth after its return.
- An earlier Russian experiment sent male and female rats to orbit, allowing them to breed. Two of the female rats became pregnant, but neither resulted in a live birth.
Yes, but: More in-depth studies are needed in order to figure out just what it would take for humans and other species to have babies off-Earth, and some scientists say there hasn't been enough attention paid to funding and performing these types of studies.
- "There's always been a bigger problem to solve," Virginia Wotring, a professor at the International Space University, told me. The focus instead has been on the technology needed to get to orbit, life support and funding for deep space efforts.
- "The risks of spaceflight are (reasonably) well-understood, but the consequences of those risks on conception, pregnancy, birth and development are barely understood at all — in any species, but particularly in mammals, and even more so in humans," Strangman said via email.
- Women have been historically underrepresented among astronauts, making it harder to study how important parts of reproduction like birth control, menstruation and ovulation may work.
The big question: What are the major factors that could limit how and whether humans can have healthy babies in space?
- Mouse sperm haven't been adversely impacted by the radiation environment on the ISS, but as humans push to farther-afield destinations like Mars, that could change as the radiation environment gets worse.
- Gravity may also be important in physically arranging the cells in an embryo. Researchers are now analyzing an experiment on the space station where astronauts cultured frozen mouse embryos to see if they needed gravity to develop. (The results of that research haven't yet been made available.)
- But it could be even more simple: Mammals are sensitive to stress, making it difficult to mate even on the ground, Teruhiko Wakayama, a researcher focusing on reproduction in space, told me.
- The ethical issues surrounding studies of human reproduction also limit experiments in space, according to Strangman.
What's next: A number of studies being proposed in the coming years could help answer those outstanding questions around reproduction in space.
- Wakayama and his research team are hoping to send freeze-dried sperm to the Gateway, a planned facility that would orbit the Moon, to understand how they fare in a more radiation-intense environment.
- Another proposed experiment, which likely still has decades to go before launch, would send tardigrades — microscopic extremophiles that are hardened to the space environment — and nematodes on an interstellar journey to see how they behave, including how they might reproduce far from Earth.
2. The JWST is in position
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has officially reached its destination about 1 million miles from Earth, bringing it closer to science operations later this year.
Why it matters: The $10 billion space telescope is designed to change the way scientists understand how the universe formed not long after the Big Bang.
Driving the news: On Monday, the JWST fired its thrusters for about five minutes, inserting it into orbit at L2, a point about 1 million miles from Earth.
- "Webb, welcome home!" NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. "Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today."
- From its new point in space, the JWST will be able to observe a wide swath of the universe and keep its instruments cold and therefore sensitive to infrared light.
What's next: Now that the JWST is in place in space, scientists will be able to spend the coming months aligning its optics and testing its instruments so that it can perform its science starting this summer.
- The telescope is expected to peer through dust to eventually capture the light from some of the first galaxies that formed in the universe and even observe the atmospheres of potentially habitable planets far from our solar system.
- According to an earlier estimate, the JWST should have enough fuel to operate for at least 20 years in space.
3. An ocean within Saturn's "Death Star moon"
Saturn's moon Mimas — which looks oddly like the Death Star from "Star Wars" fame — might be harboring an ocean beneath its crust.
Why it matters: Ocean worlds are thought to be some of the best places in the solar system — and beyond — to search for possible alien life.
What they found: Data from the final days of the Cassini mission studying Saturn and its moons revealed a tell-tale "oscillation" in the rotation of the moon that typically indicates an ocean within it, according to a new study in the journal Icarus.
- Mimas, however, doesn't look like other worlds that likely harbor oceans beneath their crusts.
- Worlds like Europa and Pluto tend to have surface features — like cracks and other geological markers — but Mimas doesn't outwardly appear to have any of those signs on the surface.
- "If Mimas has an ocean, it represents a new class of small, 'stealth' ocean worlds with surfaces that do not betray the ocean’s existence," Alyssa Rhoden, one of the authors of the new study, said in a statement.
- According to computer modeling done by the research team, Mimas appears to have a shell of ice 14–20 miles thick covering the ocean.
Yes, but: This new evidence may make scientists rethink what they understand of Mimas' evolution, possibly changing how they see other objects in the solar system as well.
- If Mimas is an ocean world, it could help researchers learn more about whether other moons in the solar system, especially Uranus' moons, might have oceans within them, according to Rhoden.
4. Out of this world reading list
SpaceX Dragon splashes down off Florida coast (Elizabeth Howell, Space.com)
Company behind Tom Cruise space film unveils plans to launch space movie studio (Loren Grush, The Verge)
Hypersonic weapons can't hide from new eyes in space (Jason Sherman, Scientific American)
Bouncing boulders point to quakes on Mars (Katherine Kornei, New York Times)
5. Weekly dose of awe: A creative black hole
A black hole 30 million light-years away is fueling star formation within its galaxy.
- This photo from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the dwarf galaxy Henize 2-10 shining brightly with a star-forming region about 230 light-years from the black hole.
- An "outflow of gas" is connecting the black hole to the region "like an umbilical cord to a bright stellar nursery," NASA said in a statement. "The region was already home to a dense cocoon of gas when the low-velocity outflow arrived."
- "Hubble spectroscopy shows the outflow was moving about 1 million miles per hour, slamming into the dense gas like a garden hose hitting a pile of dirt and spreading out. Newborn star clusters dot the path of the outflow's spread."
Big thanks to Alison Snyder, Sam Baker and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe. See you in a few months! 👶