There’s a lot of sperm on the International Space Station (ISS) right now. SpaceX launched it’s Falcon 9 rocket for a 2-day long journey to the ISS on April 2. The rocket carrying the CRS-14 i.e. the Dragon resupply capsule reached the ISS on April 5. As per the manifest, it holds a European spacecraft and a total of 5,800 pounds of food supplies, tools, equipment and experiments tucked into the capsule. But the cargo has something very unique and contrasting. As a part of an experiment called Micro-11 which NASA is overlooking, the capsule carried sperm samples taken from humans and bulls in a frozen container. Once on the ISS, the astronauts will study the movement of the spermatozoa and the effects of microgravity on it.
Micro-11, the experiment led by NASA has two basic goals to achieve. Firstly, it will examine how the tiny sperms or spermatozoa fare in the space and if there are sufficient to do human reproduction or not. Another objective is to study its behavior, nature after it comes in contact with microgravity that could provide a lot of data regarding future researchers. It is not the first kind of experiment involving sperms. Previously, researchers studied the spermatozoa and found out that sperms could develop some problem due to lack of gravity.
The mammalian reproduction is quite simple to understand. A sperm travels across the ovaries to mate with an egg where the process is considered as fusion. However, before the sperm could fuse with the egg, it needs activation that will, in turn, help its tail wag and propagate in forwarding direction. The fusion develops steam to propel faster while the head becomes softer to penetrate into the egg and fuse with it. However, the process is not entirely followed when in microgravity and that is the matter of discussion in this experiment.
According to a previous experiment where bull and sea urchin sperms were the subject, the process of activation started immediately in microgravity, however, when it is propagating forward to fuse with an egg, its speed gets slower which in turn can prevent fertilization. Thus, the Micro-11 experiment consists of sperms collected from 12 humans 6 bulls of which, half of them will be activated using suitable chemicals available on the ISS. Then, researchers will videotape the movements of the sperms using a microscopic camera as well as note down the progress. The data will be sent back to the Earth where scientists will look after the data and the sperms to analyze and conclude the results.
Human sperm made up of head and tail is diverse in appearance and motion, however, the sperms collected by bulls are more uniform which is why it will help in quality control to gauge the difference between these two types of sperms subjected to microgravity. As of now, there has not been any official sexual activity in the space which could explain why human reproduction system works in the space. Researchers deem it crucial since, in few decades, humans will be able to travel long distances and spend more time in the space which will give rise to the basic necessity of human reproduction.
NASA is also looking forward towards the prospects of multi-generational survival for lengthy missions. Joseph Tash, a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center stated that since humans aspire to travel a long distance and colonize the Moon and the Mars, researchers are studying if multi-generational survival is possible or is it out of question. Tash will study the sperms sample sent onboard CRS-14 once it arrives back to the Earth.
According to a report, Russia’s Roscosmos attempted to breed rats in the space back in 1979. Although two of the rats got pregnant while in space, they soon miscarried. A series of previous experiments have revealed that mammals have not fared well in the space, however, in comparison, non-mammals fared extremely well in previous experiments. As of now, aquatic species such as sea urchins, snails, medaka fish, salamanders, frogs, nematode, and few other aquatic species were able to breed successfully in the space.
How will humans and bull sperms perform in space? Will they be able to fuse with eggs onboard the ISS? These are just a few of the many questions that researchers will analyze once the samples arrive from the ISS.