CU engineers help launch Colorado K-12 science experiments into space

When the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for its journey to the International Space Station in 2009, it had on board two butterfly habitats, which were part of an experiment conducted by CU-Boulder and K–12 students across the country.

BioServe Space Technologies in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering department designed the payload that carried monarch and painted lady butterfly larvae and food and nectar to the International Space Station. The butterflies were monitored and compared with butterfly habitats raised in classrooms across the country. The goal was to compare the development of the butterflies in a weightless environment with butterflies being raised simultaneously on Earth.

Participating classrooms, including schools in Denver and Jefferson County, received kits containing butterfly habitats. Photos of the larvae were taken every 15 minutes and sent from the International Space Station to Earth. The photos were uploaded to a website where students could monitor them. Students compared differences in growth rates, feeding, pupation, and the time it takes for larvae to emerge as butterflies.

In addition to the 100 or so schools that participated with official kits, hundreds more raised their own butterfly habitats and participated informally. The butterflies were supplied by Monarch Watch, a research group at the University of Kansas, and Gulf Coast Butterflies in Florida.

Dubbed “Butterflies in Space,” the project is the fourth K–12 educational experiment to be flown by CU-Boulder on the International Space Station.

“One of the most exciting things about this project is that we can use the International Space Station to bring spaceflight experiments into classrooms around the country,” said BioServe director Louis Stodieck, principal investigator on the project. “Our continuing goal is to inspire K–12 students around the country in science, technology, engineering and math.”