Flying in Orbit
The astronaut badge may be limited to human beings, but we’re not the only organisms that have made it into orbit. From microorganisms to animals, many travelers have made the journey to the International Space Station. Among the most-traveled organisms are Drosophila melanogaster, more commonly known as fruit flies.
The flies are studied by scientists who are interested in how life from Earth adapts to conditions in the space environment. Such studies have important implications for space biology and medicine. For astrobiologists, these studies can also provide important clues about the evolutionary mechanisms and adaptations that could have theoretically shaped life on other worlds (if life ever found a foothold beyond Earth).
Fruit flies are one of the classic test subjects for numerous biological and biomedical studies on Earth and in orbit. Because the basic biochemical machinery is the same for all life as we know it, fruit flies can act as an important model for medical studies that have applications in humans and other animals.
Any student of biology or genetics is familiar with the fruit fly and, in fact, a new fruit fly mission to the ISS has its origins in student education. NASA’s Ames student Fruit-Fly Experiment (AFEx) has helped train graduate and undergraduate students by providing opportunities to work hand-in-hand with NASA scientists on spaceflight experiments.
When the most recent cargo resupply servicing mission left Earth for the the ISS, it carried a payload of new fruit flies into orbit. They were launched to the station on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Data will be collected from the experiment for around a month, and then the flies will return to Earth on the same Dragon capsule.
Interestingly, NASA recently announced that SpaceX will provide future transportation for astronauts to and from the space station. Before those human explorers are carried into orbit aboard a Dragon, fruit flies will have already made the journey
For more information about AFEx and the current crew of fruit flies heading to the ISS, see this press release from the NASA Ames Research Center.
Fruit flies have played a major role in science education throughout the years, and there are numerous resources online to learn more about these tiny space explorers. Here’s a few worth checking out:
Flies in Space!: Fruit flies feature on this educational page from NASAQuest.
Astrobiology Short Course: This online short course from Montana State University describes how experiments with fruit flies apply to astrobiology and our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of life.
The Wonderful Fruit Fly (University of North Carolina): This site explains how fruit flies are used in genetics, and has resources for both teachers and students.
PBS Learning (Public Broadcasting): This educational production on ‘the Gene’ from Public Broadcasting stars the fruit fly.