The mission, called Micro-11, rocketed frozen human sperm — and bull sperm for a comparison — to the space station early this month. The aim? NASA wants to know: “Do sperm squirm the same in space?”
Lack of gravity affects human sperm motility and fertility. During fertilization for mammals, the activated sperm swims to fuse with an egg, and it faces a vastly different environment depending on gravity.
Earlier studies for other types of sperm have pinpointed a number of issues in space.
Experiments with sperm from sea urchins and bulls have suggested that “activating movement happens more quickly in microgravity, while the steps leading up to fusion happen more slowly — or not at all,” NASA explained. “Delays or problems at this stage could prevent fertilization from happening in space.”
Astronauts on the space station will thaw the samples and add a chemical mixtures to activate the sperm. They’ll then record how well the sperm move in space. Samples will be sent back to a lab at the University of Kansas for further study.
The experiment is being managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The sperm was launched into space April 2 as part of SpaceX’s fourteenth cargo resupply mission to the space station.