Why NASA is planning to send a team of rat astronauts to the International Space Station

Contributed by
Aug 20, 2014, 10:53 AM EDT (Updated)

The astronauts who call the International Space Station home are about to get some company, although it might not be the animal pals they were hoping for.

As part of a new research initiative, NASA is planning to send a team of rats to hang out on the ISS for between 30 and 90 days. That’s a big deal, considering that the longest rats have ever been kept in space up until this point is around two weeks.

Space notes that the team chose to use rats instead of smaller mice because rats' neurocognitive functioning is similar to that of humans. This upcoming experiment will give scientists a chance to study the effects of prolonged space travel on rats, which is something that has never really been done up until this point.

There are still a few kinks to work out. Namely, the team doesn’t know exactly how often they’ll have transport available due to NASA cutbacks and the ongoing deal with private space firms like SpaceX. 

Once the rat experiments get underway, NASA also hopes to send up fruit flies. The unique, extremely short lifespan of fruit flies can allow researchers to study changes over multiple generations. Flies also contain approximately 700 of the 900 genes for human disease, meaning they’re a solid indicator for research purposes.

Here’s hoping the team works out all the logistics, because you’d think the last thing the astronauts in the ISS would want to have to deal with is a critter infestation in orbit. But if Pixar is looking for its answer to Gravity, this seems like a pretty good premise.

(Via Space, image via Freaking News)