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Satellite full of sexually experimental geckos adrift in space, Russia loses control of mission

The Foton-M4 and its cargo of five geckos could be lost for good unless scientists regain control of the craft before its scheduled re-entry in September

Russian scientists have lost contact with an experimental satellite filled with geckos that was to be the focus of new research on animal sex in zero-gravity.

The Foton-M4 spacecraft was launched from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on 19 July and made several orbits of the planet before it stopped responding to commands from Roscosmos, Russia’s Federal Space Agency.

UPDATE: The Russian gecko satellite is back online

"So, there is only one-way communication," a spokesperson for mission control was quoted as saying by news agency ITAR-Tass, adding that engineers were looking to fix the problem in case life systems were disrupted, killing the creatures on board.

The five geckos on the Foton-M4 – four female and one male – were launched into space for a 60-day flight to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives.

A Madagascar day gecko sits on a perch. Image: Reuters

Oleg Voloshin, a spokesperson for the company running the experiment, confirmed that this part of the mission has already begun and that other experiments on board – including a project to grow pure crystals to be used in advanced semi-conductors – were also in working order.

The satellite is the latest in the Russian Foton-M series to be launched into space. The first launch in 2001 failed, tragically falling back to Earth and killing 20-year-old soldier Ivan Marchenko, while the second successfully proved in 2004 the lichen could survive in space for 14 days.

The third Foton-M craft was launched in 2007 and provided a temporary home to geckos, newts, snails and Mongolian gerbils. The satellite spent 12 days in orbit before safely returning to Earth, with a study of the creatures noting that the gerbils had “moved chaotically” in space.

Landing of the Foton-M4 was originally scheduled for September, although scientists will have to regain control of the craft if it is to be safely landed in southern Russia.