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Space no place to escape snorer

Columbia's astronauts have proven beyond a doubt that people do, indeed, snore in space.

But do they snore more in orbit, or less?

"This mission definitely could answer that question," said Derk-Jan Dijk, a sleep specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Astronaut-physician Dave Williams, one of the shuttle sleep subjects, announced the latest news from space Monday.

"It turns out that you can actually snore in space," he said, "and we didn't know that before." Asked who the culprits were, Williams replied: "It turns out that I manage to make those noises myself."

There was also bad news from orbit Monday: Forty-five of 96 baby rats launched 1{ weeks ago aboard Columbia have died as a result of maternal neglect. That's a casualty rate five times higher than expected.

The deaths will hurt scientists' brain-development studies, said NASA's chief veterinarian, Joseph Bielitzki. "But they'll still be able to achieve their primary objectives." The rodents were to have been dissected after the flight.

Most of the 45 rats, about 2{ weeks old, died naturally. At least five animals, however, were so sick that the crew had to kill them. The astronauts managed to nurse some of the sick rodents back to health.

Their surrogate mother rats weren't drinking enough water, and either shunned the young animals or simply did not produce enough milk for nursing, Bielitzki said.

As for snoring, researchers weren't sure until now whether gravity was required. Snoring, after all, had never been verified scientifically in space.

Researchers also didn't know whether sleeping astronauts inhaled and exhaled less air in space, and whether they had to make more of an effort to breathe.

To find out, Williams and the three other medical men aboard the shuttle periodically have worn microphones and other paraphernalia to bed, including a head net with electrodes to measure brain waves.

"The fact that snoring's been verified, there may be more to the mechanisms of snoring than we've completely understood in the past," said NASA mission scientist Jerry Homick.

The snoring could mean that astronauts' sleep in space is less restful than believed. Researchers have known for some time that astronauts tend to sleep poorly in orbit.

The astronauts' orbital snoring will be compared with the racket they made before the flight _ which was recorded in sleep tests _ as well as the results afterward.

"What is the prediction we have? Are they going to snore more or are they going to snore less? And we could not really come up with a real prediction," Dijk said. "So we'll see."