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Students Participate In Near Real-Time Space Research With "Spiders and Fruit Flies in Space"
Golden orb spider, Nephila clavipes, inside the spider habitat and Spiders in Space educator's guide. Images credit: BioServe

Golden orb spider, Nephila clavipes, inside the spider habitat and Spiders in Space educator's guide. Images credit: BioServe

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The "Spiders and Fruit Flies in Space" experiments, an educational opportunity for K-12 students, launched to the International Space Station aboard shuttle missions STS-134 and STS-135. These experiments were supported by NASA, in collaboration with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, the ISS National Lab Education Office, Baylor College of Medicine - Center for Education and Outreach, the Butterfly Pavilion, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and Orion's Quest.

This opportunity allowed K-12 students to participate in near real-time space research, to learn about collecting and analyzing research from NASA scientists and to gather their own parallel, ground-based data to analyze. "Students have access to the data in their classrooms, and they have an opportunity to help analyze spaceflight data themselves" said Sharmilla Bhattacharya, the NASA Ames Research Center Life Scientist who worked with the students in developing their science studies.

In one experiment, the students studied the long duration orb weaving characteristics of a Nephilia clavipes, or golden orb web spider. In a second, they studied the movement and behavior of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) that served as food for the spiders during the flight. The spiders and fruit flies were monitored and evaluated to determine how the spiders' construction of orb webs and the fruit flies' mobility behavior changed over a period of 45 days in microgravity. In a third experiment, students measured the direction of plant growth during seed germination in microgravity, by characterizing directional plant growth in response to direct contact and to light during seed germination in microgravity. All three experiments were conducted simultaneously on board the International Space Station.

Although the "Spiders and Fruit Flies in Space" experiments were designed as a student learning activity to encourage learning and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), it is hoped that the results will contribute to a clearer understanding of how different organisms are affected by the microgravity environment. Teacher guides and educational products for these experiments were developed to encourage and inspire students to pursue careers in the scientific and technical fields. Participating students had the opportunity to observe the organisms on Earth in their classrooms in parallel, control experiments, and compare them to imagery from the experiment conducted onboard ISS.

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