Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

It is perhaps not surprising that a small Russian satellite containing five sexually frustrated geckos has become the subject of widespread media attention. After all, any sentence containing the words Russian, space, lizard and sex is bound to have a certain currency.

The lizards, in case you missed it, are the stars of a series of experiments being conducted by the Russian space agency Roscosmos aboard a satellite. Scientists are eager to see if the geckos can still manage to mate in zero-gravity.

The test – attention-grabbing enough in itself – grew more dramatic in mid-July when the communications link between the satellite and its controllers was temporarily lost. Normal service was soon restored, however, at least to the electronics. Whether normal service is still possible for the geckos is, of course, the point at issue.

In one sense, the travails of the Russian scientists indicate just how far the nation's space research has slipped in the Putin era. Over in the West, boffins have been sending wildlife into orbit for years.

The latest example, in fact, was an appropriately multinational affair that occurred only last Tuesday, and involved a mob of zebra fish.

The zebra fish – little stripy things found in many home aquaria – were carefully packed on board a French-made robotic service vessel called the George Lemaitre, strapped to a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket, and launched from French Guiana in South America. The service vessel will dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on August 12.

Once there, the zebra fish will be installed in a special NASA-built aquarium and monitored closely to see if being in space makes them go flabby. Mating won't be mandatory, but might be advisable to help pass the time.

Australia has no direct stake in the ISS. Our involvement is through collaboration with other nations, particularly Japan, in designing space experiments.

"We are very good at collaborating," said Dr Naomi Mathers, of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "We need skilled engineers and scientists in the future, and space is a great way to inspire today's students."

Stories about orbiting geckos, she said, are great for attracting public interest, but they can also lead people to think space research is rather frivolous. "It's very, very expensive for any scientist to do anything in space," she said. "So even when experiments seems quirky, there's always serious intent behind them."

Sending biological material into orbit serves many functions. In some cases, the aim of the research is primarily medical.

Radiation and weightlessness combine to produce some unfortunate effects in astronauts. The current crew on the ISS, therefore, is taking part in a long-running series of NASA-sponsored tests, designed by researchers at the Texas Southern University.

Called NanoRacks, the experiment is researching biological additives that might be useful in limiting the damage to human immune systems that space travel inevitably causes.

Space travel can have other unpleasant outcomes, too, because weightlessness is simply not a state to which are adapted. Some of these problems are likely to be exacerbated over time. With a mission to Mars already well publicised, and the age of commercial jaunts around the solar system seemingly not too far away, researching cause and prevention has become a pressing concern.

Hence the hapless zebra fish. In an experiment designed by the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency, the fish will be monitored to measure the degree to which their muscles waste away – and the speed at which they recover once returned to earth.

The fish are essentially human proxies. The muscle damage caused by prolonged periods in zero-gravity is clearly a matter of major importance to the aerospace industry. The first batch of Mars colonists may well look like Greek statues in space suits when they depart, but that will be of limited value if upon arrival at the Red Planet they look more like mounds of cottage cheese in sleeping bags.

Muscle wasting is also the target of another set of experiments, part-sponsored by NASA, due to kick off on the space station in September this year. Cargo delivered to the crew at that point will include 10 mice, which "will live in micro-gravity for 21 days". (The astronauts will no doubt make sure the rodents are securely contained. A tin can 250 kilometres above the Earth is not a place where you want mice chewing the electrical cables.)

The ISS mouse house, interestingly, is also part-sponsored by an unnamed pharmaceutical company. Its researchers will be studying the test results with an eye to identifying possible new treatments for osteoporosis and muscular dystrophy.

A similar motivation is propelling a series of tests on fertilised quail eggs. Micro-gravity causes embryonic bones to lose minerals – a process akin to that which causes bone fragility in humans. The NASA-sponsored experiments closely monitor the growth of the embryos. One set of eggs, unhatched but alive, will be returned to Earth, to see if the resulting chicks can walk without tiny zimmer-frames.

Embryo development, of course, is interesting for another, directly space-related reason. Just like the Russians and their geckos, many of the experiments conducted on the International Space Station concern sex. It's easy to see why.

"You find a lot of work being done with frogs," said Dr Mathers. "They have a short life-cycle. How do the absence of gravity and the presence of radiation affect their reproduction? Will the next generation be sterile?"

Assuming no further comms failures, it will be the Russians who eventually produce the first ever images of animals actually bonking in zero-gravity.

The main ISS sex experiment, a long-running series of tests sponsored by Japanese researchers, is called Space Pup. Sadly, its parameters do not extend to having anything remotely smutty happening at high altitude – which, awkwardly, leaves weightless procreation solely at the discretion of some small monochromatic fish.

Space Pup primarily tests the effects of cosmic radiation on freeze-dried mouse sperm. The material is chilled, then kept on the ISS for periods ranging from a month to a year. Back on earth it is used to produce baby mice, which may or may not thrive, wither or turn into Halle Berry.

Despite their initial strangeness – a Japanese study of radiation on silkworm behaviour, for instance – most biological space experiments promise medium or long-term benefits for humans. Occasionally, however, one crops up that perhaps got the nod just because it is gloriously, simply, magnificently odd.

On board the ISS the Japanese space agency is testing snails. These molluscs contain small organs called statoconia that actually sense gravity.  The research has shown that snails in environments devoid of gravity develop really, really big versions.

The practical applications of the snails-in-space research seem a tad opaque. The results, however, could suggest that snails on the Mars colony would grow to the size of Nissan Micras, or that space-snails returned to Earth would immediately stick to the ground, unable to move.

Australia's contribution to understanding biology in space is distinctly modest. Perhaps its most important contribution to date happened in 2011. It involved beer.

A Sydney-based brewery, 4 Pines, teamed up with an aeronautics company and researchers at Queensland University of Technology to tackle the looming problem of alcohol in space.

It's a genuine issue for space tourism operators. The carbonation in beer means that a cold one drunk in zero-gravity will float around in your stomach. It will make you burp, and your burp will be embarrassingly liquid.

The collaborators, therefore, developed a low-carbonation 'space-beer' called Vostok. The beer was tested by independent researchers on board a specially designed plane that flew in parabolic arcs, creating zero-gravity conditions. Six 150ml measures were sunk. No one burped.

Back at the ANU, Dr Mathers is very active in an annual nationwide program called the Mission Ideas Contest, which encourages students of all ages to design space experiments. The winning entries will be performed by one of the crew on the ISS.

"The best experiments have an element of fundamental research as well as potential practical explanations," she said. "I think we should be inspired by science, and not just driven by its results."

Or, as the old Russian proverb has it, "sometimes you just have to watch the geckos float".