No human has ever been born in space, but Dutch Biotech startup Spaceborn United aims to change that.
Commercial spaceflight is already becoming a reality, and although firms such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are not yet ferrying commuters to the Moon or to Mars, some visionary scientists believe it is only a matter of time before humans become a spacefaring species.
Egbert Edelbroek, CEO of Spaceborn United, is one such believer.
And if humanity is to truly take to the stars, he says, we will need to find a way to reproduce there.
Passengers kiss aboard a flight that simulates the weightlessness of space. Zero-gravity intimacy is just one of the challenges facing extraterrestrial reproduction
His company’s near-term goal is to test whether laboratory rodents can be conceived and born in space, then live to give birth to healthy babies.
The eventual aim of this research is to support human conception and birth in space, a step Edelbroek says is necessary if people are ever to live beyond Earth.
‘Humanity needs a backup plan,’ he told MIT Technology Review. ‘If you want to be a sustainable species, you want to be a multiplanetary species.’
Spaceborn’s technology is central to this plan.
The company’s ‘space-embryo-incubator’ is a disc-shaped device designed to hold male and female sex cells — sperm and eggs — and combine them in low Earth orbit. The whole contraption is about the size of a shoebox.
After 5-6 days of growth, the developing embryo will be cryogenically frozen and sent back to Earth, where it will be examined to determine whether it can be implanted into a surrogate mother and carried to term, according to the company’s informational materials.
Freezing the embryos is meant to help protect them during the traumatic event of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, Edelbroek told AFP. ‘It’s a lot of shaking, a lot of vibration, a lot of G-forces. You don’t want to expose embryos to this.’
After issues with Spaceborn’s spaceflight partner delayed a first test this year, the device is set to go up into low Earth orbit in November 2024.
Following this experiment, Spaceborn has plans to test human embryos fertilized under artificial gravity and then under low gravity conditions.
Reproduction is one of the most basic functions of life on Earth, but what about life in space?
The combination of low gravity and high radiation would exert unknown effects on developing human embryos. Spaceborn is first exploring these effects in lab animals
A lack of gravity is one of the basic obstacles to human extraterrestrial reproduction. Without gravity holding two people’s bodies down, the act of sex would be quite difficult.
Then after fertilization, it’s unclear how a lack of gravity would affect an embryo’s development.
Spaceborn United’s CEO Egbert Edelbroek says humans will need to find a way to reproduce in space
Some research suggests that a low-gravity environment could alter how developing embryonic stem cells divide, how they differentiate into different cell types, and how they defend against DNA damage.
But these studies have all been conducted in dishes of lab-grown cells, and it’s not clear how the results would translate to the cells of a living animal, or a person.
Radiation is another major issue. Outside of Earth’s magnetosphere, galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) will bombard a spacecraft and its occupants, potentially fostering DNA mutations and cancer.
For an embryo whose cells are rapidly dividing, this kind of interference could be disastrous.
In low Earth orbit, such as aboard the International Space Station, Earth’s magnetosphere extends far enough beyond the planet’s surface to protect astronauts against the harmful effects of GCR.
Earth’s magnetosphere protects us from galactic cosmic radiation (GCR), but on a trip to Mars, astronauts would be bombarded with these space rays. Their effects on a developing embryo are unknown
But beyond the magnetosphere’s reaches, like en route to Mars, travelers would be pelted with GCR.
This radiation exposure, especially for women in their mid to late 30s, can significantly increase the risk of certain types of cancers.
The effects of space radiation on astronauts’ central nervous systems seem to be tolerable, according to a study from this year that modeled exposure over 30 days. But a mission to Mars would likely last multiple years.
In promising news, mouse sperm preserved on the International Space Station were just as viable as those stored on Earth, according to a study published in 2021.
Spaceborn’s plans for experiments on human embryos are years off at this point, and even their mouse experiments are yet to get off the ground.
But with space tourism proceeding apace, it may be only a matter of time before a human couple actually attempts to conceive in space.