Astro-Spiders Spin on Station

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Internal view of Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus Science Insert (CSI) spider habitat. Image courtesy of BioServe.
Let me introduce you to Esmeralda and Gladys, two recent popular International Space Station crew mates.

The astro-arachnids (or astro-spiders ), named by astronaut Cady Coleman, were part of the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus Science Insert-05, or “http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/CSI-05.html”>CSI-05 scientific investigation being done on the station. Esmeralda and Gladys are both golden orb spiders (Nephila clavipes), and monitoring their daily web-building was a fascinating investigation for many. Though they were only aboard the station for about 45 days, the investigation continues on Earth in classrooms around the world.

The golden orb spider spins a web daily, eating it each night for the protein and energy needed to start a new web the next day. Esmeralda and Gladys were delivered to the station on space shuttle flight STS-134 and returned home on STS-135. The goal of the investigation was to study how the spiders spin their webs and catch their food in microgravity, comparing that behavior to how the spiders spin webs and catch prey on Earth.

Once the spiders were returned to Earth, Gladys was doing well, and upon thorough examination it was discovered she was actually a male spider and was renamed Gladstone. Unfortunately, Esmeralda did not survive the flight back to Earth. BioEd Online reported that “she heroically lived out her normal life span in space.”

Female Nephila clavipes (golden orb spider) in her web. Image taken by Danielle Anthony.
Female Nephila clavipes (golden orb spider) in her web. Image taken by Danielle Anthony.
In an earlier similar investigation, “http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/CSI-03.html”>CSI-03 the golden orb spiders would build their webs at all times of the day and night. During CSI-05, Esmeralda and Gladys typically would spin their webs in the early morning, eating them shortly after lights out. The habitat chambers were set up to provide 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime, using infrared cameras to photograph in the dark. They dined on living fruit flies, provided in each of their separate habitats.

Both investigations included daily data and imagery downloads. BioServe Space Technologies, one of the principal investigators, monitored the investigations via the downlink. These investigations were designed to be easily duplicated in classrooms providing hands-on experience for students involved. All classrooms interested in participating in this investigation are provided a teacher’s guide that features lesson plans, student activities and background information for conducting the investigation in their own classrooms. This guide, and many videos and pictures, are available at “http://www.bioedonline.org/space/STS_Mission_134S.cfm”>BioEd Online. A video is included demonstrating how to: “http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=kt1mUNx_ATU”>build a simple spider habitat.

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Nephila clavipes (golden orb spider) inside the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus Science Insert – 05 (CSI-05) spider habitat on board the International Space Station (ISS). Image courtesy of NASA
During the “http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/destination_station.html”> Destination Station event held in Denver, Colo., Sept. 20-27, 2011, the audience showed great interest in the astro-spiders and their outer space adventures living and working aboard the space station. At the event held at the Butterfly Pavillion, pre-recorded video was shown so guests could watch Gladys and Esmeralda in their outer space habitats, as they carried out their “spiderly” activities in microgravity. There were a total of 1,500 visitors to the Butterfly Pavillion that day. The event was well-received, with the kids, and adults alike, enjoying the experience.

It would be interesting to see how a new crew of astro-spiders might adapt and perform their daily routines differently. Another result of these types of investigations could also show how organisms adapt and change genetically to their environments.

This June 3, 2011, video “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF5R9WAfW_I&feature=player_embedded”>video shows Gladys, eating and attacking her molt on the station. There is also a May 27, 2011 : “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF5R9WAfW_I&feature=player_embedded”>video of Esmeralda during a feeding frenzy of newly hatched fruit flies. Read the Space Station Science Office’s feature on “http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/space_spiders_live.html”>Spiders in Space for more details.

Lori Keith
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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