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15 Odd Things We've Sent to Space for Some Reason

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Artifacts, personal and pop cultural totems, and even the dead have made the journey from our planet to the outer reaches of the heavens. We've covered some odd things that have gone to space before; here are a few more strange things that took a trip to the cosmos.

1. HUMAN REMAINS

Thanks to Celestis, a company that specializes in booking “memorial spaceflights,” and an agreement with private rocket company SpaceX, the remains of several people who have passed away have been launched into the great beyond (for a couple of hours, at least). Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's remains were on the inaugural Celestis flight in 1997; his remains took flight again in 2012 with the remains of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty. Astronaut Gordon Cooper’s ashes were also on that flight.

2. SALMONELLA

Lots of strange things have been brought to space in the name of science—including salmonella. Two shuttle flights to the International Space Station (ISS) contained samples of salmonella to determine how the bacteria would react to low gravity, and the findings were kind of scary. When the salmonella returned to Earth after being in orbit for 12 days on the space shuttle Atlantis, the bacteria became even more virulent. In the first study to examine the effect of space flight on the virulence of a pathogen, the bacteria that had taken a space trip was three times as likely to kill the lab mice as the salmonella that was kept on Earth in as close to similar conditions as possible.

3. TARDIGRADES

Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears, became the first animals to survive exposure in outer space. The eight-legged creatures typically spend their days on a moist piece of moss or enjoy feasting on bacteria or plant life at the bottom of a lake, but they survived being frozen at -328 degrees Fahrenheit or heated to more than 300 degrees on their trip to space. The water bears, which typically don’t grow more than one millimeter in length, were dehydrated and exposed in space for 10 days by a group of European researchers. Back on Earth and rehydrated, 68 percent of the tardigrades that were shielded from the radiation survived. A handful with no radiation protection not only came back to life, but later produced viable offspring. Excitedly, an “amateur tardigrade enthusiast” theorized that the water bears must be extraterrestrial in origin if they can handle such conditions, but that claim has boringly been denied by the Swedish and German scientists, who made up for it by naming their experiment "Tardigrades in space," or TARDIS.

4. SPERM

Without gravity, samples of animal sperm don’t work the way they should. Putting bull sperm in orbit resulted in the tiny cells moving faster than usual. Meanwhile, in sea urchin sperm that flew on NASA missions [PDF], the process of phosphorylation screeched to a halt when the enzyme known as protein phosphatase didn’t do its job. In 1979, two female rats that went to space became pregnant but didn't carry the fetuses to term, and the males’ testes shrank along with their sperm count. Fortunately (or unfortunately), one creature has been able to reproduce far from our planet: the cockroach.

5. SEE-THROUGH FISH (MEDAKA)

Since the medaka’s organs are clearly visible thanks to its transparent skin, they were the obvious choice for astronauts and scientists to test the effects of microgravity on marine life—and to help determine why astronauts suffer from a decrease in bone density while in orbit. Bones naturally break down and rebuild, and osteoclasts help break down the bones while they're under construction, as it were. In space the process gets wonky, which is why astronauts take part in two-hour high-intensity exercise routines and take vitamin D supplements. With the medaka’s help, scientists discovered that pesky, time-consuming space exercise could be avoided, and by finding the mechanism in bone metabolism, it may lead to a development of a treatment for osteoporosis.

6. DINOSAURS

In 1985, small bits of bone and eggshell from the duck-billed dinosaur Maiasaura peeblesorum were brought along a mission on SpaceLab2 by astronaut Loren Acton. Thirteen years later, the skull of a meat-eating Coelophysis from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was a passenger on a trip to the Mir space station.

7. SOFT DRINKS

In 1984, Coca Cola decided that they wanted to be the first carbonated beverage on a space shuttle. They spent $250,000 developing a can that would work without gravity that would also keep the drink fizzy and not spill all over the place, even changing some of their formula. NASA agreed, and Pepsi responded by saying it felt left out. NASA then announced that any soft drink could participate if they created a viable container. Only Pepsi responded to the challenge (poor RC Cola). In 1985, four cans of Pepsi and four cans of Coke were on board the Challenger; the day shifters drank Coke, and the night owls consumed the Pepsi. Neither of the sodas were to their liking. Sometimes nobody wins The Pepsi Challenge.

8. PIZZA

Pizza Hut wasn’t satisfied with simply being the first company to advertise on a rocket in the year 2000, so one year later they paid the Russian space agency about $1 million to become the first company to deliver a pizza to someone in space. The pizza delivered to cosmonaut Yuri Usachov included a crispy crust, pizza sauce, cheese, and salami (because pepperoni grows moldy over a certain period of time). Extra salt and spices were also added to compensate for the deadening of taste buds from space travel, and it was delivered in a vacuum seal. Usachov gave the pizza a thumbs up.

9. A CHEESE WHEEL

The private spaceflight company SpaceX placed a wheel of Le Brouere cheese on an unmanned spaceship to honor the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus cheese shop sketch. To add to the pop culture celebration, SpaceX went a little more obscure but more American, sealing the cheese wheel in a metal cylinder with the image of the film poster from the 1984 Val Kilmer movie Top Secret!. It was claimed to the first cheese to travel to orbit on a commercial spacecraft.

10. A CORNED BEEF SANDWICH

Astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board the Gemini 3 in 1965. The following exchange was recorded:

Gus Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

The entire incident lasted 30 seconds, with the sandwich only being consumed for 10 of those seconds, before being put back away inside Young’s flight suit.

While legend has it that Yuri Gagarin was accompanied by a homemade salami sandwich in 1961, the Russians had a specialized vacuum kit so they could clean up after eating to prevent any clogging of shuttle equipment. The Americans were just supposed to consume food from tubes, so Young was putting himself somewhat at risk for the five hour mission. The astronaut got a stern talking to; he later landed on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission.

11. GUNS

Unlike astronauts, Soviet cosmonauts went into space locked and loaded, carrying a triple barrel TP-82 capable of 40 gauge shotgun rounds. The heavy duty big boy weapon was deemed necessary after 1965, when cosmonauts landed on Earth stranded in the Ural Mountains and needed to keep wolves from making them dinner. In 2006, however, the TP-82s were replaced with your standard semi-automatic.

12. BUZZ LIGHTYEAR

A Buzz Lightyear toy spent 467 days in space, orbiting the Earth on the ISS before having a ticker-tape parade in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom thrown in his honor. The toy’s namesake, Buzz Aldrin, was a special guest.

13. AMELIA EARHART’S WATCH

Amelia Earhart was the first president of an international organization of licensed women pilots called The Ninety-Nines. One member of that group is astronaut Shannon Walker, who was presented in October 2009 with a watch, owned by current group director Joan Kerwin, that Earhart wore during her two trans-Atlantic flights to bring onboard the ISS. Earhart, of course, was the first female trans-Atlantic passenger in 1928, and flew from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland solo on May 20, 1932. She gave her watch to H. Gordon Selfridge Jr., who passed it along to Ninety-Nines charter member Fay Gillis Wells. Kerwin acquired the watch at an auction.

14. A TREADMILL NAMED AFTER STEPHEN COLBERT

Stephen Colbert, as he is wont to do, managed to crash an online contest, and with enough write-in votes technically won the right to name a room at the space station after himself. NASA reserved their right to ignore write-in votes, but compromised by naming their second-ever model of treadmills after him, dubbing it the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The manufacturer of the treadmill nickel-plated the parts, and unlike a standard treadmill, there are elastic straps that fit around the shoulders and waist to keep the runner from careening across the space station. The announcement was made by astronaut Sunita Williams on an episode of The Colbert Report; Williams ran a marathon on the previous treadmill while living at the space station in 2007, jogging in place with the concurrent Boston Marathon.

15. AN ISSUE OF PLAYBOY MAGAZINE

Some members of the backup crew of Apollo 12 included some Playboy spreads of DeDe Lind, Miss August 1967, on the crew’s checklists, which were attached to Pete Conrad and Alan L. Bean’s wrists as they explored the lunar landscape. Astronaut Richard Gordon, who stayed in orbit around the moon during the mission, also found a topless DeDe Lind calendar hidden in a locker, which was labeled “Map of a Heavenly Body.”

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Here's Where You Can Watch a Livestream of Cassini's Final Moments
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It's been a road trip like no other. After seven years and 2.2 billion miles, the NASA orbiter Cassini finally arrived at the Saturn system on June 30, 2004. Ever since, it's been capturing and transmitting valuable data about the distant environment. From sending the Huygens probe to land on the moon Titan to witnessing hurricanes on both of the planet's poles, Cassini has informed more than 3000 scientific papers.

It's been as impressive a mission as any spacecraft has ever undertaken. And tomorrow, Cassini will perform one last feat: sacrificing itself to Saturn's intense atmosphere. Project scientists are deliberately plunging it into the planet in order to secure just a little more data—and to keep the spacecraft, which is running low on fuel, from one day colliding with a Saturnian moon that might harbor life.

Because it won't have time to store anything on its hard drive, Cassini will livestream its blaze of glory via NASA. The information will be composed mostly of measurements, since pictures would take too long to send. Instead, we'll get data about Saturn's magnetic field and the composition of its dust and gas.

"As we fly through the atmosphere, we are able to literally scoop up some molecules, and from those we can figure out the ground truth in Saturn’s atmosphere," Scott Edgington, a Cassini project scientist, told New Scientist. "Just like almost everything else in this mission, I expect to be completely surprised."

The action will kick off at 7 a.m. EDT on Friday, September 15. Scientists expect to say goodbye to Cassini less than an hour later. 

While you wait for Cassini's grand finale, you can check out some essential facts we've rounded up from Saturn experts. And keep your eyes peeled for a full recap of Cassini’s historic journey: Mental Floss will be in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to offer a firsthand account of the craft's final moments in space. 

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9 Essential Facts About Saturn
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This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on October 10, 2013.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

Saturn is the planet you always drew in elementary school because without those rings, it's just a circle. But what is Saturn, anyway, and what makes it special to planetary scientists? Now is a good time to find out: On September 15, the scientists who operate the Cassini spacecraft—which they've used to study the gas giant for 13 years—are going to intentionally destroy Cassini by sending it on a crash course with Saturn. The data it will send back before it meets its fiery demise will be priceless.

Mental Floss is going to be inside mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as the scientists send Cassini on its grand finale mission. We'll have a full dispatch for you. In anticipation, we spoke to Saturn experts to find out what you need to know about the planet before Cassini takes its final plunge.

1. SATURN BY THE NUMBERS.

At 75,000 miles across, Saturn is nearly 10 times larger than Earth and the second-largest planet in the solar system, behind its neighbor, Jupiter. It is called a gas giant, meaning it is really big and made mostly of gas: in this case, hydrogen and helium. The deeper you get into Saturn, the greater the pressure and heat. How bad could it be, you ask? Bad enough that hydrogen exists as a liquid metal near the planet's core. In other words, don't expect astronauts to plant flags down there anytime soon. One Saturn year lasts about 30 Earth years, and one Saturn day is, well …

2. THE LENGTH OF A SATURNIAN DAY IS A MYSTERY.

The spacecraft Cassini has been operating in the Saturnian system for 13 years doing extraordinary science—and yet the length of a day on Saturn remains elusive. Is it 10 hours and 39 minutes, as suggested by data from Voyager 2 in 1981? Or is it 10 hours and 47 minutes, as Cassini data suggested when the spacecraft first arrived at Saturn in 2004? Or is it 10 hours 33 minutes, as later data suggested?

The problem is that Saturn keeps giving new answers. There are no continents spinning around for scientists to set a stopwatch to; cloud orbits are unreliable; and measurements of the planet's radio radiation and magnetic fields have proven equally frustrating. As Cassini completes its final orbits, it is collecting up-close Saturn data that might finally answer the question. No matter the number to be determined, 10 hours and change is a tremendous speed for a planet of Saturn's size to be spinning, and it affects even the planet's shape; its poles are flattened as a result of its rotation.

3. SATURN HAS SEASONS.

Visiting space aliens would never confuse Saturn with Earth, though the two planets do have one interesting shared characteristic: both are tilted to similar degrees relative to the equator of the Sun. Earth is tilted at 23.5 degrees; Saturn is tilted at 26.7 degrees. Axial tilt is the reason we experience seasons, and Saturn is no different (though the leaves there don't change color due to a pronounced lack of trees). Saturn experienced summer solstice four months ago, marking its maximum axial tilt toward the Sun and making it midsummer in Saturn's northern hemisphere. It will reach Autumn equinox in May 2025.

4. HERE'S MORE ABOUT CASSINI, NASA'S MOST AMBITIOUS PLANETARY MISSION EVER.

After 20 years in space—seven years en route to Saturn and 13 years in orbit around it—the Cassini spacecraft is nearly out of fuel for its thrusters. Rather than enter a permanent orbit around Saturn as an artificial satellite, or sent on an intercept course with Uranus, both risky endeavors, Cassini will burn up like a shooting star when it plunges into the depths of Saturn on September 15. For the past six months, Cassini has been taking daring dives through Saturn's rings in a series of 22 orbits, the last of which will send it on an impact course with the planet. As it speeds into the gas giant, it will return data on the composition of Saturn's atmosphere. Cassini's death mission will protect the moons Enceladus and Titan from contamination by Earth germs. 

5. ENJOY TERRIBLE WEATHER? YOU'D LOVE LIFE ON SATURN.

"Saturn has these absolutely massive storms once every few decades," says Sarah Hörst, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University, "and we actually got to see one of them happen because we've been there so long." Scientists already knew about the storms from Earth-based observation, but close-up study made possible by Cassini gave new insights on how they work and what they do. "These massive storms actually pull up a lot of material from deeper in the atmosphere—stuff that we can't usually see or measure," she tells Mental Floss. This material consists of gases from deep within the planet's atmosphere. Saturn's storms cause dramatic temperature changes, and even have lightning. "If you were somehow managing to stand inside of Saturn's atmosphere, some of the storms would feel quite familiar, and some of these longer-lived storms, these vortexes, are somewhat related to a hurricane."

6. IT HAS A CORE, BUT DETAILS ABOUT IT ARE HAZY.

Saturn has a rocky core surrounded by liquid metallic hydrogen, though the finer details of the planet's interior remain elusive. At Jupiter, NASA's Juno mission is hard at work determining the nature of that planet's core. The 22 proximal orbits of Cassini's "grand finale" have a configuration similar to those of Juno, and scientists hope that data from these orbits can be used with Juno data to learn more about Saturn's interior. "The general picture that there's rocky stuff down there, probably metallic hydrogen, isn't really going to change," says Hörst. "The details of exactly how it looks and where its phase changes are—those types of things—will hopefully be worked out a bit more before Cassini ends."

7. YOU CAN SEE SATURN FROM YOUR BACKYARD.

When the skies are conducive to viewing, even a modest telescope can allow you to see Saturn. It will look just like you imagine: a ball surrounded by a distinctive ring structure. It will even "feel" three dimensional (because it is, of course) in a way that Jupiter or Mars will not. Your telescope might even allow you to spot Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Sky & Telescope offers a guide to help you see Saturn in all its glory.

8. ITS MOONS MIGHT BE YOUNGER THAN SOME DINOSAUR FOSSILS.

Earth's moon is about 4.5 billion years old. Saturn's moons are mere infants in comparison: possibly as young as 100 million years old. Matija Cuk, a research scientist at SETI, modeled the orbital evolution of the Saturn system, and found that the orbital shifts of the moons over time, and the gravitational influences of the moons over each other, suggest origins when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. "If calculations predict that something happened in the past and you don't see it, maybe it never happened," he tells Mental Floss. One scenario sees a different inner moon system whose orbits resonated and eventually crossed, causing the moons to collide. The current system of moons then assembled from the debris.

Those rings around Saturn might not be very old, either, and might be related to the young moons. "The rings might be pieces of broken up moons," he says. "You figure out how old the rings are and you can figure out the last time the moons were broken up and when some of them were put back together."

9. THERE'S A GOOD CHANCE THAT LIFE EXISTS ON THOSE MOONS.

Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, possesses a global saltwater ocean surrounded by an icy crust. That ocean is in direct contact with a rocky core. Saltwater touching rock is exciting because it allows for interesting chemistry—including the sort that might be conducive to life. Adding to the excitement are hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, spewing water, minerals, and nutrients heated by geothermal activity. Better yet, that ocean is being blasted into space through massive geysers. This means NASA can get to the water, sample it, and hopefully, find life.

Titan, another moon of Saturn, also possesses the right stuff for life—and not boring old liquid water life, either, but something wholly alien: a methane-based life form. Key to such life would be the presence of the molecule acrylonitrile, now known to exist on Titan. The European Space Agency landed the Huygens probe on Titan in 2005, and Cassini later discovered several massive liquid methane lakes on that world. The next step is to send a submarine there and get to work.

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