Ants in Space: Shuttle Hosts High-Flying School Project

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On January 16, three teachers and four students headed down to Florida to watch the ants lift off. "The day of the launch, I looked at Abby and said, It's finally done," said Poppe.

Mohamed, a sophomore, said: "It was awesome, I could feel the rumble and everything." Also awesome was the students' VIP seats only three-and-a-half miles from the launch pad, right between congressman Walsh and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Back in Syracuse, students filled the auditorium to watch the launch.

Watching Ants In Action

Now, the students are checking the progress of the ants through a Web feed.

The team predicted that the microgravity would affect how the ants acted in space. In previous ant experiments at the high school, students have spotted ants tunneling around the outside of their domains, as well as burying their dead. In space, "they're tunneling kind of randomly," Miller said.

The 15 ants in space seem to be even more active than their on-the-ground relatives. This isn't what the students expected—they thought the journey might disorient the insects. Instead, the astronomical ants are full of energy, said teacher Archabald.

Eric Spina, associate dean of Syracuse University's L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, said while these tunneling ants may not make revolutionary changes in science, there's no doubt in his mind that people are going to be spending much more time in space—and any knowledge of space's effects can help this process. "The more diversity we can get up in space now, the better off we'll be at developing an understanding of how microgravity affects living things," he said. "Ants are another rung in this ladder."

The most important part of projects like these, he said, is student involvement. "The main motivation is getting kids excited by math and science," Spina said.

While these Fowler students seem to have caught the bug for science—three of them want to continue in the field in some form—grim reality will soon set in. After the ants return February 1, the students will have a report due in a month, as well as a paper due at the end of the term.

"The launch was fun, but we know we still have work to do," said Poppe.

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