Why Russia Was Studying Space Lizard Sex in the First Place

By Sarah Zhang on at

For a brief moment, the internet was captivated by the thought of geckos copulating madly in a lost Russian satellite. Russia has since regained control of its lizard-sex orbiter, but the whole episode has gifted us an opportunity to consider a topic of extremely legitimate scientific interest. Namely, lizard sex in space.

The formerly lost Russian satellite, Foton-M4, launched into space on July 18 with a whole barrage of biological experiments ranging from fruit flies to mushrooms. We lusty humans, of course, zeroed in on the one male and four female geckos doing it lizard-style. Russian space control had lost control of the satellite's navigation, news accounts breathlessly reported, but the gecko-sex camera continued to beam reptilian porn down to Earth.

Before we make any more jokes about pervy scientists (I say this as someone who spent months watching fruit flies have sex in a lab) let's consider the scientific merit of sending animals for the sole purpose of sex. For decades now, scientists have been investigating what microgravity does to sperm and eggs and embryos. Aside from the pure scientific benefit of better understanding reproduction, it's worth considering the long view — or, really, the very long view: if humans are really going to colonise space, we should know a few things about sex in space. And lizards are a great place to start.

The mysteries of space sex

We do know a thing or two about reproduction in space, and most of it is not good. In 1979, the Cosmos 1129 mission was one of the first to send animals into space for the express purpose of sex. Two male and five female rats were tasked with getting it on.

Two of the female rats did become pregnant, but they never gave birth, suggesting something went wrong in the gestation process. That's not surprising given subsequent rodent experiments on Earth, where a spinning chamber simulates microgravity. (Much cheaper than a rocket!) In such experiments with mice, scientists have found that that sperm counts dropped and testes shrank in males. The news was no better in female mice, whose ovaries started to shut down after time in microgravity.

And there's a second major problem with reproducing in space: radiation. The Earth's magnetic field normally shields us from high-energy subatomic particles that would otherwise tear through our bodies and cells and DNA. Space stations like the ISS are clad with polyethylene to shield from this radiation, but it's still more dangerous than on Earth. Without proper shielding from radiation, scientists have determined, the DNA in embryos would become so damaged that the embryos never grow.

NASA is currently studying the effects of radiation on sperm in a programme adorably named Space Pup. Freeze-dried mouse sperm is spending one, 12, and 24 months on the ISS before being used to fertilise mouse eggs back home.

But not all space sex is so dire. Animal babies have been conceived in space, and it should not surprise you that the first species to do it was the cockroach. (Which shall surely inherit the Earth and all our abandoned spacecraft when we die.) In 2007, a Russian cockroach called Hope (really?) birthed 33 baby cockroaches after a 12-day trip in space.

And now that Russia has regained control of its latest satellite, they might have a chance of studying space-conceived geckos. Why geckos though? Well, when Russia launched a similar satellite last year to study a bunch of animals including mice, Mongolian gerbils, fish, snails, and our beloved geckos, only the snails and geckos fully survived. In the (Google) translated words of the Russian Federal Space Agency, these geckos are "astronaut ready". Being cold-blooded, they presumably are also less fussy and need less food for two months in space.

But what about humans?

Despite whispers to the contrary, especially concerning the randier Russians, there have been no confirmed reports of humans doing the deed extra-terrestrially. As far as I can tell, human sperm and eggs have never been sent into space (outside of astronaut bodies, that is) and NASA is keeping mum on data like astronaut sperm counts. Meanwhile, human sperm in simulated microgravity have shown decreased motility. Data from rat, mouse, and yes, even gecko experiments could also yield some insights into the effects of spaceflight applicable to human fertility.

But would space sex even be any good? Nausea and decreased blood flow are all par for the course in microgravity. The simple physics of space sex would be, uhh, kinky, though an incredible (fake) document has worked out possible sex positions for astronauts.

The bottom line is that all evidence points to the physics of space being unkind to our Earthly bodies. But that hasn't stopped us from going into space so far, or from living there for long stretches. In our coming era of private spaceflight, the two hundred mile-high club seems likely to get some members, eventually. And those five brave lizards will have played a small part in getting them there.

Image via Wei Ming/Shutterstock