Water fleas are currently being prepared by scientists at the University of Birmingham (UK) for their trip to the International Space Station (ISS), where they will be observed by astronauts.

These water fleas come from a lake close to the University and are the first animals from UK waters to go into space. They are currently being prepared for their transit to the US and their flight into space. This is part of a schools’ educational science project by the International Space School Education Trust and Mission Discovery, in coordination with different institutes (King’s College London and University of Birmingham).

The idea to send water fleas — or Daphnia — to space has been thought up by students from Rhondda Cynon Taff (Wales) and their project was selected at the end of the Mission Discovery programme at King's College London by a team of scientists led by NASA Space Shuttle Commander Ken Ham.

Close-up view of a water flea's head (via University of Birmingham)

The scientists are particularly interested to know how the animals adapt to their new weightless environment, for example, whether their swimming patterns change, whether the animals seem to be stressed, and how their reproduction is affected.

Dr Kay Van Damme, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences, said: ‘Little is known of Daphnia in zero gravity. Their swimming behaviour in space can teach us how they experience gravity on Earth and their reproduction is a good indicator of stress. By understanding the health of water fleas in orbit, we can assess their use as models for human health under the same conditions, and their use for setting up simple ecosystems that can survive long space travels.’

In preparation for the flight, scientists at Birmingham have to ascertain how much algae the animals will need to feed on while they are at the space station and also if they can survive in the cold temperatures they will be exposed to on their journey. Together with scientists at King’s College London, they are also preparing the astronaut manifest, which will detail the experiment.

Once they have arrived at the ISS, the astronauts on board will carry out regular observations of the water fleas, recording their behaviour each day by noting down their movement patterns and taking photographs through a special camera attached to a microscope on board.

(Provided by the University of Birmingham)

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