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'Mice-stronauts' could lead way to Mars

An artist's conception of a miniature capsule for mice to explore space
An artist's conception of a miniature capsule for mice to explore space  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- An initiative to send the first mammals into space for the express purpose of procreation has enlisted the support of several prestigious universities and a wealthy patron, according to a private organization dedicated to Mars exploration.

The Mars Society said it hopes to send a crew of mice into orbit for nearly two months, allowing the rodents enough time to reproduce a brood that matures into adulthood.

The mission would place the "mice-stronauts" in an environment that simulates the gravity of Mars, about one third that of Earth, to help plan long-term manned trips to the red planet, according to the Colorado-based group.

"This is really groundbreaking research," said Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. "There has been almost no research on artificial gravity in space and none concerning martian gravity."

After its tour, the craft would return to Earth, and teams of scientists would study the mice and their offspring to obtain the first clues about life and development in reduced gravity.

Three universities will help design and develop the project -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Washington and University of Queensland in Australia.

One challenge is how to simulate Mars gravity. One method being considered is a rotating spacecraft akin to a centrifuge.

Another is the cost. The price tag could be as high as $10 million if it includes the launch, but if the mouse capsule were to hitch a ride with a rocket carrying another payload into orbit, the cost could be as little as $2 million, Zubrin said.

"There is a lot of interest from scientists in the NASA community," he said. "We could make NASA the following offer: We could build it and deliver it to them. They could launch it, and we would both share the data."

The participating universities are helping in the search for funds, the society said, and an anonymous donor has offered to match all contributions at 50 percent.

The flight, scheduled for 2005, could shed light on whether simulated gravity counters the deteriorating effects of weightlessness. Humans on long-duration space flights have suffered marked decreases in bone density, immune system fitness and muscle strength.

"This is the first time that anyone has done experiments on higher life in martian-like environment," added Zubrin.

"Will they undergo the same physiological deterioration we see at zero g [gravity], or will one-third g be enough to counteract that effect?"


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