A Russian capsule filled with 45 mice and 15 newts along with other small animals returned from a month’s mission in orbit on Sunday with data scientists hope will pave the way for a manned flight to Mars.

Russian Mission Control said the Bion-M craft landed softly with the help of a special parachute system in the Orenburg Region about 1,200 km southeast of Moscow. The capsule was also carrying snails and gerbils as well as some plants and microflora. Rossiya state television said not all the animals survived but provided no other details.

The TsSKB-Progress space research centre’s department head Valery Abrashkin said on the day the mission took off in April that the study was aimed at determining how bodies adapt to weightlessness “so that our organisms survive extended flights”.

The space mission has been widely praised by Russian state media as a unique experiment that no other country has yet pulled off.

France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales space centre said 15 of the 45 mice came from a French research lab that is cooperating with the study.

Scientists said the animals were needed because they were subject to the kinds of experiments that are impossible to conduct on the humans who are currently operating the International Space Station (ISS).

They added that the mice would have posed a health risk if simply placed on board the ISS for a month.

The experiment’s designers said the tests primarily focused on how microgravity impacts the skeletal and nervous systems as well organisms’ muscles and hearts.

Also on board were over two dozen measuring devices and other scientific objects, some of which were stationed outside the capsule to measure radiation levels. The capsule spun 575 km above Earth.

Russia has long set its sights on Mars and is now targeting 2030 as the year in which it could begin creating a base on the Moon for flights to the Red Planet. — AFP