Butterflies to Hitch Orbital Ride on Space Shuttle
NASA's space shuttle Atlantis is set to launch to the space station on Nov. 16 with a cargo of two butterfly species to test how the critters will react to microgravity.
Credit: BioEd Online

Butterflies are slated to get another shot at surviving life aboard the International Space Station. Thousands of students plan to join scientists in watching NASA's space shuttle Atlantis launch to the space station on Nov. 16 with a cargo of two butterfly species, apparently undiscouraged by last year's experiment where caterpillars in space failed to emerge from their cocoons.

The butterfly habitats hold larvae of both painted lady butterflies and monarch butterflies, and are scheduled to fly to the space station within a suitcase-sized payload built by BioServe Space Technologies. Scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder expect to compare the space caterpillars with butterfly larvae raised on Earth by students from 100 U.S. elementary and middle schools. Hundreds of other schools may join informally by creating their own butterfly habitats.

Two orb weaving spiders managed to spin their webs last year aboard the space station, and so scientists hope to have better luck this time in witnessing caterpillars transform into butterflies ? regardless of the seemingly weightless microgravity environment.

"We did extensive testing this summer and believe we have resolved the problem," said Stefanie Countryman, the payload mission manager for BioServe. "We are adding the monarchs because we had the good fortune of being able to fly two butterfly habitats."

The caterpillars are scheduled for transfer from the space shuttle to the space station about two days after launch. They will then take about five days to pupate and form a cocoon, and spend another seven to 10 days before hopefully emerging to spread their wings.

Automation takes care of most of the space station experiment, but astronauts will participate briefly by opening the nectar food source around the 10-day mark for any butterfly survivors. Meanwhile, the butterflies on Earth may sup on a different delicious liquid diet.

"Gatorade can be diluted with water and used for butterfly nectar," Countryman told SPACE.com. She added that the space butterflies would not have the chance to sample Gatorade during their stay in space.

Images taken every 15 minutes will track the butterflies progressing through all stages of life, and become available daily on websites such as bioedonline.org and the Monarch Watch website.

The butterfly experiment represents the latest in a long line of Bioserve payloads flown on the space shuttle, space station, Russia's MIR space station and Soyuz spacecraft. Most of the upcoming payloads slated for the remaining space shuttle flights represent commercial or life science experiments.

But Bioserve also plans to run another classroom experiment next year, and allow students to connect with the space program beyond being observers.

"This experiment is slated as an educational payload," Countryman said. "However, there is solid science that can and hopefully will result from these experiments."

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