Ants… in… Spaaace!

space_ants
Image: Edmund Scientifics

Orbital Sciences delayed Wednesday’s planned launch of a re-supply mission to the International Space Station. But what are they shipping to the ISS?

Along with fresh food, water, and clothes, this mission will also have a supply of ants.

These ants aren’t uninvited hitch-hikers, they’re VIPs getting a ride into space courtesy of a NASA project to partner with K-12 educational programs. This particular research effort will look at the ants’ foraging patterns and how their search patterns while looking for food change depending on their perception of how dense their population is. Previous ant research on the Space Shuttle and Space Station has shown that ants can change their behavior quite a bit in a microgravity environment, such as their tunneling patterns.

In this case, common pavement ants on Earth tend to search for food differently if they know there are a lot of compatriots in the area vs. if they are spread thinly. They assess their density based on the frequency at which they bump into other ants as they’re searching. The question is if they use the same density determination and if they change their search patterns the same way in space as they do on a downtown sidewalk.

Good scientific research needs control groups to compare to the experimental subjects, and in this case the controls will be ant colonies in hundreds of K-12 classrooms around the world. According to CU-Boulder:

Teachers interested in participating in the ant experiments may contact [Education Program Director] Countryman at countrym@colorado.edu. More information on the project for teachers and students will be online beginning in mid-January at http://www.bioedonline.org.

This is just one small example of the kind of research that ISS is doing, combined with the mission to get kids more involved in space science.

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