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Worms, Methane Experiment Heading To Space Station On Next Supply Mission

The International Space Station. Photo: NASA
The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Around 37,000 worms and 42 liters of methane are heading up to the International Space Station next week as a part of the orbiting outpost's science missions.

The worms, only about 1 millimeter long, are hitching a ride to space on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a part of NASA Commercial Cargo Program. The agency pays private companies like SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to ship supplies and science to the station.

University of Exeter researcher Tim Etheridge will use the worms to help figure out why astronauts lose muscle mass when living in space for extended periods of time.

The worms are perfect analogs for humans. "They’re actually genetically very similar, and for the particular use of this experiment, their muscles are both structurally and functionally extremely similar to people. So when we’re talking about understanding muscle changes, worms are a really good module," said Etheridge.

Understanding why astronauts lose muscle will be important for future long-duration missions to places like the Moon and Mars.

Another experiment that aims to help future exploration missions is also heading up to the station. The Robotic Refueling Mission-3 will demonstrate the storage and transfer of liquid methane in space for the first time.

Super-chilled cryogenic fluids like liquid methane can help spacecraft live longer and go farther in space. They’re efficient, and they can be created during a mission like on the moon and used to fuel up visiting spacecraft.

It’s a little more complicated than filling up your car with gas. The experiment, about the size of a washing machine, will be parked on the outside of the station. It will demonstrate storage and transfer of the liquid between two three-foot-tall storage tanks.

NASA’s Hsiao Smith said the experiment is important for future space missions because it "will establish methods for transferring and storing these resources to refuel spacecraft on these exploration missions, laying the groundwork for what could one day be lunar fuel depots.”

Engineers at NASA have preformed previous experiments on the station testing hardware that will help spacecraft transfer cryogenic fuels. The agency one day wants to mine water on the moon and turn it into fuel for deep-space missions.

SpaceX is targeting December 4 for launch of its Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.