MAY 3 is International Space Day. In its honor, we present ideas for creating a spider habitat for the International Space Station.

THE PROJECT: Create a Spider Habitat for the International Space Station

In October, 2011, YouTube Space Lab announced a competition for students ages 14-18. They asked
students to submit a video explaining a science experiment they’d like to see sent to the International Space Station (ISS). The competition was sponsored by YouTube and Lenovo, and conducted in collaboration with Space Adventures, NASA, European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

One of the two projects chosen was proposed by 18-year-old Amr Mohamed of Alexandria, Egypt. (Learn more about AMR in this VIDEO.) Amr wondered what would happen when a spider jumped in a micro-gravity environment. The jumping spider experiment was transformed into a successful space flight investigation by Stefanie Countryman and others at BioServe Space Technologies, a center at the University of Colorado that specializes in creating space flight habitats that enable living organisms to exist as naturally as possible in an unnatural environment.

Amr named the spiders Cleopatra and Nefertiti, in honor of queens of ancient Egypt. Cleopatra, a zebra spider (Salticus scenicus), rarely came out when the video camera was filming, so Nefertiti was considered the main spider in the experiment. I’ve written about the amazing flight of Nefertiti in the following book.

Nefertiti the Spidernaut |
2017 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book

BIG IDEA: Sometimes, the back-up experiments give the most important results.

SPIDER HABITAT: Did it Work in Space?

BioServe Space Technologies has sent sixteen spiders into space since 1973. The original spider habitat was a 6” wide x 5” high x 3” deep box was made of light-weight plastic and anodized aluminum. The interior was lined with a narrow frame of light-weight balsa wood. This basic design met the mass and volume requirements for an ISS experiment. They tried to improve that design for Nefertiti.

One big engineering and biological challenge was how to feed a spider in space. Fruit flies (Drosophila) are an easy source of food because they can live in microgravity; however, they only live 40-50 days. Spiders can live for long periods with only water, but engineers still looked for ways to provide food for the full 100 days of Nefertiti’s flight.

Stefanie Countryman showing author Darcy Pattison the protype habitat for spiders on the International Space Station. |
Author Darcy Pattison talking wiht Stephanie Countryman of Bioserve Space Technologies.

For Nefertiti’s habitat, scientists and engineers decided to try to raise several generations of fruit flies. Engineers created a mini-hab with chambers that attached to the back of the habitat. Chamber 1 contained water for the spider. Chamber 2 contained the original fly larvae. When the habitat reached the ISS, the astronaut opened Chamber 2 to release the newly hatched fruit flies. She also opened Chamber 3, which held more fruit fly food flakes. The engineers hoped the fruit flies would mate and lay eggs in Chamber 3. That would produce a second generation of fruit flies. After a couple of weeks, astronauts were instructed to open Chamber 4. They hoped the fruit flies would again lay eggs, creating a third generation of flies. If all three generations worked, they’d have enough food to feed the spider for 60-70 days of flight, but not the full 100 days of flight.

Insects on the International Space Station must live in this 5" x 6" x 3" habitat. Everything sent to the ISS must be efficient in the use of space and weight. |
Insects on the International Space Station must live in this 5″ x 6″ x 3″ habitat. Everything sent to the ISS must be efficient in the use of space and weight. |

The habitat was considered a success. In the end, Nefertiti had food for about 60 days. Her natural ability to survive on just water kept her alive the last 40 days.The next time BioServe sends spiders into space, they’ll improve the design of the habitat. Often scientists and engineers can’t solve all the problems at one time. Instead, they make a small change and test it. If that works, they make another small change and test that. Eventually these small changes add up to big changes and a successful design. This type of “incremental changes” in an experiment is part of the engineering and technology that went into the design of the spider habitat for the ISS project.

For more, see this video: Bioserve Space Techonology explains the habitats available for use on the ISS.

Read and Watch More:
Sunita Williams, the International Space Station astronaut in charge of the spider experiment, blogged daily about her duties. On August 10, 2012, she wrote about the spider experiment.

Watch this video of Nefertiti hunting in space (0:00 – 0:15) and then re-adapting to Earth’s gravity (0:15 – 0:57):


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