The Iberian ribbed newt defends itself by poisoning its own bones and shoving them through its skin. Humans took a look at it and decided that if any animal deserves to be an astronaut, this newt does.
Which is why the Iberian newt has been sent into space six times. Some of those times it was accompanied by humans, as it was on the Mir space station in the mid-1990s. Most of the time, however, it was thrown off of Earth with only animal companions. It was on the Kosmos satellite, along with rhesus monkeys and rats, all the way back in 1985. Most recently it went up in 2005 on the Foton-M, a spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency.
Will it eventually be going to Mars? That depends on what it can teach us. Iberian newts are studied for two qualities, their regeneration ability and their fertility. Any animal that shoves its bones through its own skin as its first line of defense has to have impressive healing properties. The earliest experiments looked at how newts regenerated limbs in space. The results were mostly lackluster — either there was no difference between limb regeneration times or very little — but one variation was interesting. When the newts had begun regenerating their limbs before they were sent into space, their 13-day spaceflight slowed down their healing process. Once they were back on the ground, though, the regeneration process sped past the progress of already grounded newts. Could we heal faster if we undertook a short trip in space? Maybe. If we were newts.
Iberian newts also went to space because of an odd quirk in their fertility. I'll let the paper describing the experiment explain it:
After mating (on Earth) the females retain live, functional sperm in their cloacum for up to five months, allowing normal in vivo fertilisation after hormonal stimulation.
How convenient! Astronauts spent time observing the development of the newly-conceived newts in microgravity, but the results were not promising. Many of the newts developed shrunken heads, or developed without heads at all. If they managed to grow normal heads, however, the baby newts grew normally, although the experiment didn't track them past the aquatic larval stage.
So what can the space newts teach us? Unfortunately, not how to make your own bones into space weapons, but there's always the next experiment.
Image: Peter Halasz.