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Russia Successfully Launches Spacecraft Full Of Critters Into Space

Apr 19, 2013 04:40 PM EDT

Russia launched a spacecraft of critters and microflora into space on Friday in an effort to better understand the effects of sustained space travel on living organisms.

Called the Bion-M capsule, it contained 45 mice, 15 newts, 15 geckos, eight gerbils, a number of snails and an aquarium full of fish and aquatic plants.

In particular, experiments will focus on the effect of microgravity on the skeletal and nervous systems as well as the organisms' muscles and hearts.

In all, the spacecraft is scheduled to spend 30 days 357 miles above the Earth during which the animals will receive vitamin-enriched diets and water throughout the day.

The launch comes shortly after President Vladimir Putin announced a new $50 billion plan that he hopes will help preserve the nation's status as a top player in space exploration and technology. 

The plan includes a brand new cosmodrome that would enable humans to fly to space within 10 years. What's more, the country said it aims to begin construction of a base on the Moon by 2030 in order to enable flights to Mars.

Putin and his nation, however, have faced a number of problems with its space program, including the failed attempt to send a satellite to one of Mars's moons last year. 

While this doesn't mark the first time humans have relied on animal-testing in space travel, it does mark the longest one Russia has ever undertaken and the first once since 1996 when it launched monkeys, geckos and other amphibians into orbit for 15 days.

Of the experience Nicole Rayl, the project manager for NASA's portion of the mission, told that while there has been a long history of Russian-American collaboration in animal space travel, "each mission kind of brings a unique focus, be it the actual duration of the mission or the specimens flown." In this case, she said. "The big importance for us is that we get to compare data from this longer mission with better analytical tools that we have today, [compared] to missions we've flown in the past that were similar but not exactly the same."

The animals are scheduled for a safe, soft landing via parachute on May 18.

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