Tianzhou-1 will carry experiments aimed at studying cell division in weak gravity, with the ultimate goal of allowing humans to regrow damaged parts on long distance space missions.
It might sound a little bit too ‘Star trek’ to be true, but the Chinese government are remotely performing experiments on China’s first successful cargo spacecraft, the Tianzhou-1, which launched on Thursday.
The cell division experiments aren’t the main aim of Tianzhou-1, which was launched to deliver fuel and supplies to the Tiangong-2 space lab in continuing preparation for China to begin manned operations in its first space station. Whilst docked, the Chinese also decided to use the opportunity to perform some early experiments that they couldn’t have done on the surface. The team from Tsinghua University wants to develop their understanding of how the lack of gravity affects human embryonic stem cell development in the void of space.
“It’s an important experiment because it is the first step towards directly understanding human reproduction during space exploration. To what extent the human embryonic stem cell can differentiate in space is still unknown. Will the process be delayed and if so, by how much?” Kehkooi Kee – Tsinghua University.
Germ cells usually form from stem cells after around 6 days on planet Earth, and then sperm-like or egg-like cells develop in about a fortnight. The remote experiments are scheduled to last 30 days and the researchers have said that they are not sure which stage the cells will develop.
“This is for the long-term goal of space emigration. During space travel, which is measured by light years, we have to figure out a feasible way of human reproduction.”
Another stem cell experiment will look at how stem cells can multiply and then develop into functioning cells with designed functions in an environment of microgravity. Tianzhou-1 will carry embryonic stem cells and embryoid bodies of mice on board, which scientists will study in comparison to the same experiments performed here on the surface.
“Maybe scientists will be able to induce stem cells to grow into certain tissues or organs in space in the future to serve people on Earth. If a human is injured and loses organs in future space migration, the lost organs might be regenerated.” research team member Lei Xiaohua.
The next step of the project will begin when the space station is in operation and will involve growing tissue and organs that could, if needed, be transplanted into humans. Heart, kidney, liver and spleen tissues will all be attempted when the space station is in operation, which is planned by the year 2022.
NASA has been keeping a very close eye on the Chinese developments, as the Chinese hope to join the international community by having a permanent manned presence off of Earth. Tianzhou-1, which weighed 13 ton and launched successfully, was the heaviest piece of kit that the Chinese have ever sent into space, meaning their project is steaming ahead as planned. The Tianzhou-1, after docking and delivering its payload, will not stay docked with Tiangong-2 for very long. It will soon disembark and start a 3 month orbit around the planet where it will complete further experiments and then self-destruct by burning up in the atmosphere.