Tuesday, December 8, 2009



When STS-129 took to the skies in November, Space Shuttle Atlantis carried some very unique cargo. Four Vanessa cardui larvae were transported in a special habitat to the International Space Station, where each successfully formed cocoons, and transformed into Painted Lady butterflies!

Better known in North America as "Cosmopolitans," two of the space specimens emerged on November 30th, and two more on December 1st. They are now happily living as crew members on the ISS, though of course each will travel a bit less than the usual 1000 miles it might travel in a lifespan on Earth...

The larvae had no problems navigating and feeding in space, and according to their payload mission managers, now we have an opportunity to study the effect of weightlessness on butterfly behavior during flight.

The project was funded by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which is also encouraging teachers and students around the world to construct their own ground-based habitats replicating the space experiment, to compare the growth and behavior of the butterfly larvae in their classrooms with those living in the micro-gravity environment of space.

Butterflies in Space
BioServe Space Technologies is providing a Teacher’s Guide, ongoing slideshows and videos of the butterflynauts at their BioEd Online site where you can watch the caterpillars feeding, also watch each one form into a chrysalis, then later emerge to flex their healthy new wings!

The forum for teacher discussions abd questions is also quite fascinating: Are the butterflies truly "flying" or merely "floating"? Some of the butterfly test groups on Earth pupated a full day earlier – how is gravity involved, or was it a difference in nutrition?

Some of us older folks will certainly flashback to the arachnid experiments on Skylab and Columbia, where spidernauts acclimated to micro-gravity and spun nearly-normal webs. What is the impact of health on living creatures, and how important is it to conduct such experiments in space? For instance, can we ever duplicate a living ecosystem on a moon base?