Studying the Life Cycle of Butterflies and Spiders in Space

by Ian O'Neill on November 11, 2008

Will butterflies in space grow different to butterflies on Earth? (NASA, editing by Ian O'Neill)

Butterflies in space (NASA, editing by Ian O'Neill)

Space biology experiments have just arrived in the classroom. With a focus on hundreds of K-12 students, a University of Colorado, Boulder payload will be launched on board Space Shuttle Endeavour on November 14th carrying spiders and butterfly larvae. The purpose? To provide an educational research tool for youngsters, helping to develop their interest in biology and space science. The butterfly larvae will be studied over their complete life cycle in space; from larvae to pupae to butterfly to egg. Web-building spiders will be studied to see how their behaviour alters when lacking gravity. Both sets of experiments will then be compared with control subjects on the ground… I wish I had the chance to do this kind of research when in school. I wish I had the chance to do this kind of research now!

This program is an excellent example of using a national asset like the International Space Station to inspire K-12 students in science, technology, engineering and math,” said BioServe Director Louis Stodieck, principal investigator on the project. BioServe has flown two previous K-12 payloads as part of their CSI program on other shuttle flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

This particular experiment will study the activities and feeding habits of web-building spiders when in space, compared to spiders in the classroom. The hundreds of students from several locations in the US are involved in the project and will learn valuable research techniques along with boosting their interest in the sciences. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chance to carry out cutting-edge research on the world’s most extreme science laboratory!

The second set of experiments will be another space/Earth comparison, but this time a study of the full lifespan of painted lady butterflies. Four-day old pupae will be launched into space and watched via downlink video, still images and data from the ISS. Partners in the project include the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, CO and the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Education Outeach.

BioServe is a non-profit, NASA funded organization hoping to include payloads on each of the remaining shuttle flights until retirement. “Between now and then, we are seeking sponsors for our educational payloads to enhance the learning opportunities for the K-12 community in Colorado and around the world,” added BioServe Payload Mission Manager Stefanie Countryman.

The full details on the project can be found on the University of Colorado pages.

This is where the strength of the International Space Station really comes into play. Real science being carried out by schools in the US to boost interest not only in space travel, but biology too. It’s a relief, I was getting a little tired hearing about busted toilets, interesting yet pointless boomerang “experiments”, more tests on sprouting seeds and the general discontent about the ISS being an anticlimax.

Let’s hope BioServe’s projects turn out well and all the students involved are inspired by the opportunities of space travel. Although I can’t help but feel sorry for the confused spiders and butterfly larvae when they realise there’s no “up” any more (I hope they don’t get space sick).

Source: UC Boulder


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog:, be sure to check it out!

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