Earth to space station: What in the world are CU-Boulder’s ants doing way up there?

NASA Astronaut Mike Hopkins, above, observes the ant habitat on the International Space Station.

Want to compare an experiment you can easily conduct on Earth to a similar one on the International Space Station, which is whipping around 200 miles over our heads at a mind-blowing 17,000 miles per hour? Well, here’s your chance.

The University of Colorado Boulder and its educational partners are seeking K-12 teachers and students around the world interested in how the low gravity of space, which makes astronauts float, affects the behavior of ants up there.

The Ants in Space payload was designed and built by CU-Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies and launched to the space station Jan. 9. The ants made the trip into space in specially built habitats developed by BioServe, a part of the university’s aerospace engineering department, on a commercial Cygnus spacecraft.

The ants are not the first insects CU-Boulder has lofted into space -- spiders, butterflies and ladybugs also have made the trek for other K-12 educational experiments, touching hundreds of thousands of kids in the past several decades. The new experiment will look at foraging patterns of the common pavement ant on Earth and space -- the same kind of ants we see crawling about on sidewalks and vacant lots our cities and towns, said BioServe Education Program Director Stefanie Countryman.

After the ants arrived on the space station, American astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio opened up eight ant habitats by lowering barriers in each that allowed the ants to crawl out of a small nest area into a larger forage area.

Hopkins and Mastracchio videotaped and took photographs of ants meandering about in their special space homes, then provided video and snapshots to BioServe.  The material was passed on to colleagues at the Baylor College of Medicine Center for Education Outreach, who designed the curriculum for the experiments.

Countryman said she hopes thousands of students around the world will participate in the space station experiments by constructing their own ant habitats on Earth, making scientific observations of the ant behavior, then comparing their classroom results to videotapes of the space ants milling about -- and often spinning --  in their space homes.

Previous research by Stanford University Professor Deborah Gordon, principal investigator on the Ants in Space project, showed some ant species have the ability to search areas collectively without communicating with their fellow ants. When ant densities are high, ants search small areas by walking in random circles. When ant densities are low, each ant searches by walking in a relatively straight line, allowing it to cover more ground.

In addition to Gordon, Associate Professor Michael Greene of the University of Colorado Denver is a research partner on the effort. The experiment is sponsored by NASA’s National Lab Education Office as well as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, a nonprofit group headquartered in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Teachers interested in participating can visit http://www.bioedonline.org for the curriculum or contact Countryman at countrym@colorado.edu.

In the past 26 years, BioServe has designed, built and flown microgravity life science research experiments on more than 40 space missions. BioServe has a full suite of space flight hardware, both on ISS and on the ground, which supports its own research as well as research conducted by its customers and partners. Past BioServe partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers.

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