We humans are not designed to spend long amounts of time in microgravity. This causes problems as we consider sending people to Mars and beyond, which will likely mean years in space, and that can seriously screw with human physiology. Before human physiology gets screwed with, NASA is going to screw with rodent physiology first to see what happens, by sending mice and rats to a new rodent hotel on the International Space Station.
The absence of gravity and increased radiation has pronounced negative effects on most mammalian systems, and the nice thing about rodents is that we can observe these effects on a condensed timescale. Six months is about a quarter to a third of the lifespan of a mouse, so having them spend half a year in space and then seeing what happens can provide an analog to years in space for a human.
Mice (10 of them) and rats (six of them) will travel to the ISS separately, aboard transport modules carried by SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Then, astronauts will transfer the (probably very confused) rodents into their habitat module (pictured above), where they'll have ample food, water, and fresh air. They'll be able to climb around by gripping special grids on the floor and walls of their habitat, and they'll be monitored on video at all times. Two rodent missions are scheduled to fly to the ISS this year, and we're hoping NASA will share some of the video of rodents scampering around in zero gravity.
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