SpaceX has been ferrying cargo to the International Space Station since 2012, sending various items — from robot parts and a vegetable garden to genetically engineered mice — aboard its rockets. And while they may sound random, each item serves its own purpose in the critical research being performed at the ISS — including this next one.
SpaceX has launched human muscle cells into space in an attempt to explore something that will have applications in space and on earth as well: the effects of aging.
A team of scientists at the University of Liverpool has undertaken a research initiative they’re calling the MicroAge study, the main objective of which is to learn why people’s muscles get weaker with age.
This phenomenon parallels one that’s been occurring with astronauts: in zero gravity muscles tend to grow weaker as well.
Now, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has sent muscle cells as big as a grain of rice to the ISS, stored in a 3D-printed holder described as the size of a small pencil sharpener. The 24 distinct muscles will then be electrically stimulated to make the tissue contract, as if engaged in exercise. The lab-grown cells will also experience other experiments related to their zero-gravity environment before being sent back to earth to be studied further.
Research leaders say a lot of prep went into bringing this type of experiment to space, and that the electronic equipment necessary had to be shrunk down from the size of a large desk to that of a pack of cards.
According to the Daily Mail, George Freeman, Science Minister for the UK, described the research of muscle loss in microgravity as a way to potentially identify cures for musculoskeletal disease, saying “By harnessing the unique environment of the International Space Station our pioneering scientists could help us all live healthier, stronger lives.”