Image: Mouse Drawer System
NASA/Italian Space Agency.
The lateral side view of the Mice Drawer System, a so-called "hotel" for six mice as part of a bone loss study aboard the international space station in 2009.
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updated 8/31/2009 1:48:07 PM ET 2009-08-31T17:48:07

A team of six intrepid mice are going where no rodents have gone before: The international space station.

The small rodents are part of an Italian study investigating the effects of bone loss in space, and researchers have set the mice up in orbital style.

"Basically, it's a little hotel," said Joe Delai, Discovery's payload manager, of the cages holding the space mice. "They have a room and a place to eat and sleep."

That creature comfort is key, he said. After all, the little mice will be living in space for at least three months before hitching a ride back home.

Mice have flown in space countless times before, even on space shuttles headed for the space station. But the critters always stayed aboard those shuttles and returned home, said NASA's space station program scientist Julie Robinson. The longest any mouse has lived in space has been about 30 days, and that was while flying on an unmanned satellite, she added.

"This is a brand new technology for carrying rodents into space," Robinson said of the mouse enclosure. "This will be, by far, the longest period of time that mice have been maintained in the space station environment in an experimental setting."

The mice are living in a special experiment drawer delivered to the station late Sunday by astronauts aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery. The drawer is split into partitions to give each mouse ample living room.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 "Each mouse is in its own little compartment," Robinson told SPACE.com. "The compartments have screens around them so the mice can hold on with their feet so that they're in control of their environment...so they're not stressed out."

The mice get food and water through automated systems, which astronauts can refill when needed. A different system turns on lights to simulate day and night, and cameras will monitor their progress, Robinson said.

"We take good care of them," she added.

Astronaut Nicole Stott, who arrived at the station aboard Discovery and joined the outpost's crew early Monday morning, checked in on the mice shortly after the shuttle docked. She apparently found them in good health.

"All is nominal," Stott radioed Mission Control in her status check. The drawer will be stored in a refrigerator-sized rack inside the station's Japanese Kibo laboratory with astronauts checking in on them every now and then, Robinson said.

The mice will return to Earth in November, along with Stott, aboard a different space shuttle. They were launched to the space station for the Italian Space Agency, which is overseeing the bone-loss study.

Bone-saving genes
Three of the six space mice have a special gene that combats osteoporosis, a condition that leads to bone loss over time resulting in weak, brittle bones. A similar group of six mice is being studied on Earth as a control group.

On Earth, osteoporosis affects women more than men, particularly after menopause, NASA has said. But in space, astronauts routinely lose bone and muscle mass because of their prolonged exposure to microgravity. Researchers hope the experiment may lead to better treatment for osteoporosis on Earth and protection for astronauts on long space missions.

If the mice with the special gene suffer less bone loss than those without when compared to the control group, it "gives you reason to go down a whole new set of pathways to tackle osteoporosis on Earth," Robinson said. The experiment could potentially lead to more closely tailored therapies for osteoporosis based on an individual's specific needs, she added.

The bone-loss study is only one of 21 experiments that will be performed using the space-station mice. Thirteen of those studies are based in Italy, with the other eight spread across NASA and the space agencies of Japan, Canada, Germany, as well as the member countries of the European Space Agency.

"All the different physiological systems are being studied," Robinson said.

Discovery's seven-astronaut crew is in the middle of a 13-day mission to deliver new science gear and supplies to the space station. They will attach a massive cargo pod packed with 8 tons of new supplies to the station on Monday. Three spacewalks are planned to upgrade and maintain the orbiting laboratory.

The astronauts are also delivering a new treadmill named after comedian Stephen Colbert. The mouse drawer compartments, however, do not have recreational treadmills for their rodent tenants, Robinson said.

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