NASA Decided To See What Would Happen To Spiders In Space, And The Results Were Both Surprising And Dark

NASA Decided To See What Would Happen To Spiders In Space, And The Results Were Both Surprising And Dark

As a species, we’ve had the capability for space travel for quite some time, and we’ve sent more than just people up there – we’ve sent all sorts of weird stuff, especially animals. There have been a ton of animals that have been sent into space: monkeys, dogs, rats, newts, fish, and more. NASA also sent Nephila clavipes – golden orb weaver spiders – into space as well. And everyone involved from astronauts to students called them by different things: arachnonauts, spidernauts, and even astro-nids.

What’s the point, you might ask? Scientists wanted to see what happens to spiders and their ability to spin webs while in microgravity. We humans are infinitely curious about everything and love to poke and prod and see reactions to gain a better understanding of ourselves and our vast universe. On May 16, 2011, the spiders launched into space onboard the Endeavor, and scientists back on Earth learned quite a few interesting things from their eight-legged astronauts.

The Spiders Adapted Quickly To Microgravity

The Nephila clavipes themselves seemed to have their own little science experiment; their first webs were chaotic and three dimensional, as the spiders were not used to the lack of gravity. However, within a few days of being in space, they adapted to their weightlessness, and made their webs with some normalcy. Though they typically spin asymmetric webs – where the largest portion of the web is located in one direction – in microgravity they spun symmetric webs.

They’re Supernaturally Fast At Catching Prey In Space

For the most part, orb-weaver spiders face downwards when waiting for prey in their webs, because gravity makes them much faster when they catch a fly below them. However, without gravity, attacking prey in any direction became a breeze. Of course, attacking downwards became downright scary. Watch as Thelma nabs her prey in the blink of an eye.

Even Their Prey Was Studied Intently

To feed the spiders, NASA also brought Drosophila melanogaster – common fruit flies – aboard on the mission. These flies weren’t just food for the arachhnidnauts. The scientists also wanted to see how microgravity would affect the flies’ flight patterns. One can only imagine them flying around in a rather disoriented manner. Just like the spiders, students also studied them in classrooms at the same time as well as serving as a control group. Extra fun fact: first animal in space were fruit flies, way back in 1947.

NASA Basically Asked 130,000+ Kids To Study One Of Nature’s Most Efficient Killers

Classrooms all over were asked to keep Nephila clavipes in order to observe the differences between the ones in space and the ones at home, and to also act as the “control” portion of the experiment. (You can check out their lesson plans at BioEd Online). The orb-weaver is an arachnid that adjusts its web daily to maximize its ability to catch prey, and the smartest minds on Earth said: hey, take a super close look! These kids got to learn all sorts of cool natural science from the astronauts themselves, and also got to watch their killer pets devour dozens of insects at the same time.

Spiders In Space Went Viral On Social Media

They even had their own Twitter account: @space_spider. On April 28 and 29, 2011, during the launch of the Endeavor, thousands of people on Twitter kept a close eye on the @NASAKennedy Twitter account, commented on the launch, the weather conditions, and particularly on the spiders. Even the astronauts felt a little upstaged by the spiders, who were more popular than them for a time. The event led to them switching just using the hashtag #NASATweetup to eventually creating the @NASATweetup Twitter account some time later.

There Were Three Ecological Experiments To Study The Effects Of Microgravity

NASA Experiment CSI-05 didn’t just have spiders up in space. There were also fruit flies and plants. The plants – standard Brassica (mustard plant family) – were experimented on to see how microgravity and artificial lighting changed the direction of their growth. Just as with the spiders, there were schools back on earth that grew the same plants in classrooms to observe alongside the ones out in space. The image is of the seed germination flasks used aboard the International Space Station.

Humans Are Ridiculously Close To Fruit Flies From A Genetic Standpoint

A huge reason why Drosophila melanogaster – the common fruit fly – was sent up into space is because they share 75% of the genes that cause diseases in humans. This means any data scientists find find can be translated and mapped for the human genome. All Jeff Goldblum related The Fly jokes aside, we’re luckily unaffected by the orb weaver’s venom.

You Can Go See The First Spidernauts Ever

Highschooler Judith Miles suggested studying the effect of weightlessness on spiders. NASA thought it was a great idea and sent a couple of araneus diadematus – cross spiders – up into space. They were named Anita and Arabella. Their first days spinning webs were chaotic as they acclimated to weightlessness. Arabella took until the third day to spin a web as normal. Unfortunately, both spiders did not survive the trip, and they died of dehydration. They’re preserved at Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in DC, which is also the home of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Spidernauts Died When The Columbia Disintegrated On Re-entry In 2003

These spiders were also golden orb weavers, the same species as the ones sent up in 2011. They were an Australian-led experiment also meant to observe their web spinning in microgravity. Though there were some photographs and videos, not much data has been released about the experiment, mostly due to respect for those who died. In that disaster, all seven astronauts on board were killed, and their loss was felt all over the globe.

Golden Orb Weavers Are Incredibly Efficient Hunters

Nephila clavipes rebuild their webs on a daily basis, maximizing their stickiness and design every day. Every new iteration is a fresh chance at enhancing their webs. The webs have asymmetric designs to maximize their ability to capture prey trapped in the web. Plus, they weave non-sticky webs around the hunting web as protection from predation. The strands are yellowish gold in color, and it’s theorized that it acts as camouflage while in shadow, as well as to attract bees while in sunlight.


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