Ants in Space

Biologists have been studying the effects of space travel on insects since the 1940s. However, it was not until the last decade (2003) that social insects were sent into space. For obvious reasons, bees and social wasps that sting are not suitable subjects because of their space requirements and difficulties in confining them. Ants are a better social insect to send into space. Ants are small, quite active, have minimal food requirements, can be confined to a small space and display a range of interesting behaviors including building tunnels. The effects of gravity on ant tunnel construction is certainly an interesting question. The idea of ants in space was proposed by High School students from Syracuse, New York and approved.

The students selected harvester ants which are large and easy to observe in a colony such as an ant farm. However, a traditional ant farm has soil which is unstable and might collapse, crushing the ants during the high gravity forces that develop during launch. In order to send an ant farm into space a new agar (seaweed) substrate was developed. An interesting feature of the agar is that nutrients, the water, sugars, proteins, lipids, vitamins and minerals that ants need can be incorporated into the agar. Agar based ant farms are now commercially available and commonly used in classroom education.

Once the project was developed, the students had to wait and wait as their project kept getting bumped down the list. Finally, the ants made it into space on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. The students anticipated that the ants might be aversely affected by weightlessness and become disoriented. However, ants not only tunneled in the gel, they did so more vigorously than ants on earth.

Unfortunately, the Columbia met with disaster and everything on board perished including the ants. The only survivors were Caenorhabditis elegans (nematode worms) that were recovered alive from one of the modules.

Ants have since made return trips to space including trips on the privately funded Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 inflatable space stations, which are still in earth orbit.

The Ant Nebula
So named because it resembles the head and thorax of an ant
Photo: Hubble Space Telescope

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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