Jumping Spiders Are Orbiting Earth Today

The jumping spider investigation, as part of the ISS YouTube Space Lab contest, includes the red-backed spider (left) and zebra spider (right) species. Credit: BioServe

Imagine jumping spiders orbiting Earth at over 17,000 miles per hour as they attempt to nab their prey in a weightless environment. Will they succeed? This and more will be happening aboard the International Space Station (ISS) this week as the two YouTube Space Lab winners see their experiments conducted by astronaut Sunita Williams starting today.

NASA challenged 14-18 year-old students to devise an experiment in physics or biology that could be performed in space. Participants were required to submit a 2-minute video on YouTube with a description of the experiment and what they hoped to learn. The agency received more than 2,000 entries from 80 countries.

Amr Mohamed’s YouTube spider experiment proposal

The winners were Amr Mohamed from Alexandria, Egypt and Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma from Troy, Mich. Mohamed wants to find out how weightlessness affects jumping spiders’ ability to hunt their prey. Jumping spiders don’t build webs but stalk prey and then jump and bite like a cat on a mouse. What’s for dinner on the space station? Fruit flies of course. Mohamed hypothesizes the spiders will jump and overshoot their meal. His hope is that the spiders will devise new ways to get their food. A simple experiment, right? Yet if his hypothesis is born out, we’d witness a brand new behavior in jumping spiders.

“I have always been fascinated by science because with a handful of equations, I can explain the world around me,” said Mohamed. “The idea of sending an experiment to space is the most exciting thing that I have ever heard in my life.”

Frame grab of Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma during this morning live video. Credit: NASA

Chen and Ma hope to learn whether a particular strain of bacteria (B. subtilis) will become more virulent in space compared to the same bacteria on Earth. Their experiment was inspired by similar tests done with Salmonella that showed it became more virulent in the space station environment. They hope the results will help us learn more about how bacteria cause disease. If you’d like to watch the experiments streamed live this morning from 250 miles over your head, please click HERE.

Lucky for us, the space station is back in the dawn sky stating a series of regular passes for the next few weeks. If you’d like to see the brightest man-made object in space, just log in to Heavens Above and select your city or go to Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys and type in your zip code. Times below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. The ISS looks like a brilliant, slow-moving star traveling from west to east.

* Tomorrow Sept. 14 starting at 6 a.m. Low pass above the southeastern horizon
* Sunday Sept. 16 at 5:57 a.m. Bright, easy to see pass across the south-southeast under the constellation Orion.
* Monday Sept. 17 at 5:10 a.m. in the southeastern sky again
* Tuesday Sept. 18 at 5:56 a.m. Travels high across the southern sky – a brilliant pass. Watch for it to glide just above the planet Jupiter about 5:59.
* Wednesday Sept. 19 at  5:09 a.m. Slices across the bright star Betelgeuse in Orion just after 5:10.

The three topics for the essay contest. From left: the curious moon Pan, Saturn’s braided F-ring and Saturn the magnificent. Credit: NASA

In a related story, NASA announced the Cassini Scientist for a Day essay contest. The contest is open to students in grades 5 through 12. Participants choose one of three images of the Saturnian system and describe why it’s the best choice to learn more about Saturn, its rings or moons. The three objects chosen for this year’s contest are:

* Saturn’s small shepherd moon, Pan
* Saturn’s F-ring
* Saturn

Participants pick their favorite image from the list and write a persuasive essay of fewer than 500 words describing the scientific merits of their choice and the questions they hope will be answered by those investigating that particular object. Cassini scientists and educators will read all the entries and choose the winners.

All students who write essays will receive a certificate of participation. Winners and their classes will be invited to participate in a teleconference with Cassini scientists and winning essays will be posted on the Cassini website.

For contest rules, videos about each essay topic, a downloadable contest
flyer and more, please click HERE. The deadline for U.S. participants is Oct. 24, 2012. Go for it students!

(Contest source material: NASA/JPL press release)

4 Responses

    1. astrobob

      Hi Leslie,
      Yes, I’m aware of it. I almost wrote something about it but got sidetracked tonight. In any case, the asteroid’s quite faint (14.5 magnitude) and well beyond the moon.

  1. Just me

    What would they do with these “adapted” spiders, bringing jumping spiders back that have adapted to weightlessness just doesnt seem very smart to me, sure the spiders will get smarter, why would you want this?

    1. astrobob

      Science works in marvelous ways. While we probably don’t need adapted spiders bounding around on Earth, it would be interesting to know how rapidly (or even if) spiders can learn new behaviors in such a different environment. Anytime we can find out how life adapts to unusual circumstances, we not only learn more about that particular creature, we may even learn something about our own capabilities. Then there are side benefits – experiments often lead to new questions which can lead to further knowledge. I think the knowledge itself is just a start. Where you go from there depends on the human imagination to continue searching.

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